Iowa Supreme Court Rules Against Iowa Citizens in Right to Clean Water Lawsuit

The fight for clean water in Iowa is far from over

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Food System

For Immediate Release

Des Moines, IA — Today, the Iowa Supreme Court split and ruled 4-3 against the plaintiffs in Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch v. State of Iowa regarding a lawsuit against the State of Iowa for failing to protect the public use of the Raccoon River. The lawsuit focuses on a well-known water crisis in Des Moines and Polk County: the polluted Raccoon River.

For years, industrial agriculture within the watershed has contaminated the Raccoon River with toxic levels of nitrates, landing it on this year’s Most Endangered Rivers list. And, this year is the third in a row where the Des Moines area has experienced algae blooms in its waterways due to that unabated runoff. Just this week, the Des Moines Water Works asked residents of the capital city to ration water consumption, given the water crisis.

The lawsuit was filed by Food & Water Watch and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, who are represented in the action by Food & Water Watch, Public Justice, Roxanne Conlin & Associates, and Channing Dutton, of Lawyer, Lawyer, Dutton & Drake LLP.

Motivated by concern for the Raccoon River, whose watershed provides drinking water to 500,000 Iowans in the greater Des Moines area, the groups sued the State of Iowa in March of 2019 for failing to protect the public’s use of the river. In September 2019, Polk County District Court Judge Robert Hanson denied the State’s request to dismiss the case. The State appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, and today the Court’s four-Justice majority decided that a favorable decision would not remedy the harm from pollution in the river and that the case raised political questions that the legislature, not the courts, should resolve. As a result, although the Court recognized that the case seeks to address “a real environmental problem,” the lawsuit will not proceed and unabated agricultural water pollution will continue to pollute the Raccoon River.

The groups’ suit relied on the Iowa Constitution and the Public Trust Doctrine, which require the state to protect Iowans’ right to use and enjoy Iowa’s lakes and rivers.

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch issued a joint statement:

“Iowans have the right to clean water. According to the Public Trust Doctrine, which has been Iowa law since Iowa became a state, it is the State’s duty to protect that right. The legislature failed to protect Iowans’ right to clean water as provided by the Iowa Constitution. The Iowa Supreme Court has decided that a favorable decision in our case would not remedy the harm from pollution in the Raccoon River and that the lawsuit raised political questions that the legislature, not the courts, should resolve. Until further action is taken, industrial agricultural runoff will continue to pollute the river unimpeded, and Iowans’ right to clean water will remain a right without a remedy. We speak for many people across the state of Iowa when we say that we are deeply disappointed.”

Despite the Court’s split 4-3 decision, Iowa’s water is worth fighting for. Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Food & Water Watch, and partners across the state will continue harnessing the grassroots power that brought us here today to seek real, actionable solutions to Iowa’s water crisis.

We are considering all options moving forward, and absolutely believe that all Iowans have a right to clean water — and that the state has a duty to protect that right. The fight for clean water in Iowa is far from over.

Contact: Phoebe Galt, [email protected]