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Federal judge kills Des Moines Water Works lawsuit


photo by Eleanore Taft

Federal Judge Leonard Strand threw out the Des Moines Water Works’ water quality lawsuit against drainage districts in three northern Iowa counties.

“I’m pleased to see an end to this costly litigation brought about by the Des Moines Water Works,” Gov. Terry Branstad said in a press release.

The basis of the suit was that nitrates enter the water at increased rates due to tiled drainage systems (used to turn former wetlands in northern Iowa into farmable terrain.) This affects the drinking water of over 500,00 people in the Des Moines metro area. The Water Works spends millions of dollars each year to remove the nitrates and comply with drinking water standards.

The suit had already been called into question by a bill in the Iowa House that would disband the water utilities of any metro area with over 500,000 people in the state. Des Moines is the only metro of that size. Many of the speakers at a public hearing March 6 said they thought the bill was retaliation for the lawsuit.

Kirk Brill of Des Moines attended a March 6 hearing to speak against the bill that would disband the waterworks, saying it was retaliation. Brill holds up a May 8, 1986 paper with himself on the cover, the year he began fighting for water quality. Brill said six babies in northeast Iowa died that year of blue baby syndrome, which can be caused by high nitrates. Brill’s fish business also began to fail, which Brill attributes to nitrates, and he had to close up shop. — photo by Eleanore Taft

The Water Works had originally sued the boards of supervisors in Calhoun, Sac and Buena Vista counties for the cost of removing nitrate run off. That portion of the lawsuit was dropped in January, but the rest of the suit, which would call for drainage districts to apply for permits through the Clean Water Act, was expected to go to court in June 2017.

This would have set a new precedent, because agriculture was exempt from liability for pollution under the Clean Water Act — “It would never have passed otherwise,” chair of the Des Moines Water Works Leslie Gearhart said.

“The dismissal of this lawsuit is very welcome news for our farmers, small businesses and communities across Iowa,” Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds said in a press release.


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