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Des Moines WaterWorks CEO: You can shoot the messenger but not the message

Agriculture breathes a sigh of relief in the Des Moines WaterWorks lawsuit — but only for a moment. The Iowa Supreme Court, in a 3-2 decision, answered the certified state law questions against certain claims made by DMWW against drainage districts for water pollution Friday.

For the past two years, there’s been an ongoing battle between DMWW and 12 drainage districts in Sac, Calhoun, and Buena Vista counties. WaterWorks claims runoff from fertilizers are polluting the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers at excessive rates. They think farmers should ultimately pay.

But some accuse WaterWorks of using the lawsuit as a way to pay for filtration equipment that needs to be updated. According to Bill Stowe, CEO of Des Moines WaterWorks, it will cost “tens of millions of dollars” to update the filtration equipment needed at the facilities.

The state court said DMWW would not be allowed to receive damage payments from the lawsuit. However, they did say the portion of the lawsuit regarding the use of a permit under the Clean Water Act would move forward.

Iowa agriculture groups and officials praised the court.

“This decision is a significant loss for Des Moines Water Works.  Their failed strategy seeks to circumvent well-established Iowa law with more than 100 years of precedent.  Unfortunately, it has already cost Des Moines Water Works ratepayers more than $1 million dollars on lawyer fees that could be better spent improving their infrastructure and serving their customers.” Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey said.  “While Iowans have continued to take on the challenge of improving water quality and investing in additional conservation practices, the lawsuit has been a needless distraction from our collaborative, research-based approach that is working with Iowans in rural and urban areas across the state to improve water quality.”

Iowa Corn Growers Association President Kurt Hora said this is a major win.

“It was positive for agriculture and I think that means we’re doing the right thing out here. We’re going to continue to implement the nutrient reduction strategy and are farmers need to be able to drain that ground. That is going to be a huge part of what we have going here.”

Joel Brinkmeyer is CEO of the Agricultural Legal Defense Fund in Des Moines. He says their office is happy with the decision.

“It was really expected because the supreme court upheld over a hundred years of precedent already established in supporting Iowa law. It is not a surprise but it is most certainly a win for the defendants and we’re very pleased about that.”

Iowa Farm Bureau members were pleased with the state court too.

“The lawsuit has done nothing to improve water quality and has impeded that conservation progress. Iowa farmers are taking on the challenge of improving water quality, but the challenge is bigger than farmers. That’s why farmers partnered, prior to the lawsuit, in key areas of the state to improve water quality. That work will and must continue. The best solution moving forward is to embrace collaborative efforts and practices designed and measured by ISU researchers which will sustain the land and water for all Iowans,” IFBF President Craig Hill said.

During a press conference Friday afternoon, CEO of Des Moines WaterWorks Bill Stowe was upset with the court’s decision.

“While we are disappointed in the decision of the Court not to provide an opportunity for relief to Des Moines Water Works ratepayers, we respect the opinion of the Court.  Unresolved questions of permitting and, ultimately regulation, are not addressed yet, and remain at the heart of the federal case,” Bill Stowe, CEO and General Manager, Des Moines Water Works said.

“The Iowa Supreme Court’s decision was an opportunity for moving 100-year old Iowa law progressively forward on water quality issues never before considered, but that opportunity did not command a majority on the Court. We were pleased Chief Justice Cady stated in his separate opinion that ‘Pollution of our streams is a wrong, irrespective of its source or its cause and look toward a day when a majority of the Court may agree.”

The federal case is still expected to go to trial June 28th in Sioux City, Iowa. Stowe said they will continue to seek damage payments in the federal case.