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DES MOINES — Environmentalists expressed disappointment Friday with an Iowa Supreme Court decision to dismiss their legal challenge to the state’s water-quality policies, but vowed “the fight for clean water in Iowa is far from over.”
Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig, however, said the justices “got it right” and Iowa Farm Bureau Federation President Craig Hill applauded the court for deciding that Iowa’s water quality regulations should be left elected legislative and executive branches of government to decide.
In a 4-3 vote, a sharply divided high court dismissed a lawsuit by Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch attempting to halt the state’s voluntary approach to regulatory compliance that encourages farmers to adopt conservation practices to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution running off from fields into waterways.
The groups contended the state policies have failed to improve the state's water quality and reduce the flow of fertilizer and hog farm waste into the state's river and streams. But the majority of justices said decisions on limiting pollution from farms was a political matter — and not one for the courts.
The groups sued the state in March 2019, alleging Iowa’s nutrient reduction strategy has failed to adequately address agricultural pollution and protect the public’s use of the Raccoon River in Central Iowa. A Polk County district judge earlier had denied a state request to dismiss the case, but Friday a majority of Iowa Supreme Court justices reversed that decision and ended the challenge before arguments on the claims could be aired in a courtroom.
While noting the “merits of the case” were not before the high court, Justice Edward Mansfield wrote that the environmental groups’ “expansive view” of the public trust doctrine did not give them standing to seek judicial redress on an issue best resolved by the legislative and executive branches.
“There is not enough here to demonstrate that a favorable outcome in this case is likely to redress the plaintiffs alleged reduced ability to kayak, swim or enjoy views of the Raccoon River, or would save them money on drinking water,” Mansfield wrote in dismissing the claim on a lack of standing.
Mansfield, writing for the majority, declined to “go beyond the accepted role of the court” by letting stand a district-court decision in 2019 that allowed the environmental group’s lawsuit to proceed, saying further proceedings eventually “would entangle us in overseeing the political branches of government.”
Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justices Thomas Waterman and Matthew McDermott joined Mansfield in the majority opinion, while Justices Brent Appel, Christopher McDonald and Dana Oxley each wrote dissenting opinions.
In his dissent, Appel argued the majority was taking a “slash and burn” approach to a lawsuit alleging injury in the violation of the public trust doctrine in advocating for allowing the case to proceed in district court.
Oxley said the court majority's "dismissive characterization of the plaintiffs' requested declaratory relief as too general rings hollow." She said if a court struck down the state's current voluntary pollution strategy for farmers, the state could impose mandatory regulations on farmers that would provide relief to the plaintiffs that meets constitutional standards.
McDonald said he shared many of the views raised by the majority but also believed the case should not be remanded to the district court for dismissal.
“The majority raises a host of legitimate concerns regarding the constitutionality, feasibility and efficacy of potential remedies,” McDonald wrote in his dissent. “I share those concerns.”
But, he said, given the case currently “is in the head waters,” his preference was to “remand and allow the case to continue downstream.”
In a joint statement, CCI and the Food & Water Watch officials said “we speak for many people across the state of Iowa when we say that we are deeply disappointed.” They pledged to work with other partners to continue “harnessing” grassroots power to seek “real, actionable” solutions to remedy what they view as 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,” according to the joint statement.
The Associated Press and Rod Boshart of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed.