Key water quality questions up to justices

Iowa Supreme Court asked to settle several issues before case proceeds

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By Erin Murphy, Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau

DES MOINES — The Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday on key questions in a lawsuit brought by a Des Moines water utility against drainage districts in three northwest counties over river pollutants.

The court will determine whether drainage districts should be immune from most lawsuits and whether water utilities should be eligible for monetary damages over waterway pollutants.

The Des Moines Water Works has filed a lawsuit against 11 drainage districts in Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun counties over harmful nitrates discharged into the Raccoon River, which flows through Des Moines.

The utility asserts it spent $1.5 million in 2015 cleaning the pollutants from water it delivers to 500,000 customers.

The lawsuit is being considered by a District Court judge, but the judge asked the state Supreme Court to rule on several questions before the case proceeds.

Among them are whether drainage districts, which were created to turn wet ground into farmable land, are immune from this type of lawsuit; and whether a ruling in favor of the utility could include monetary damages or simply lead to more strictly enforced regulations.

Justices David Wiggins and Daryl Hecht removed themselves from the case. Justices do not give reasons for their recusals, according to a court official.

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