Groups sue Iowa for farm pollution into Raccoon River

The Raccoon River (KCCI-TV)
The Raccoon River (KCCI-TV)(KCRG)
Published: Mar. 27, 2019 at 5:06 PM CDT
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An Iowa-based community activist organization and a Washington-based environmental group filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the state of Iowa and several state agencies alleging they have deprived residents of their right to clean water by failing to adequately regulate pollution from hog operations and crop farms.

Iowa Citizens For Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch filed the lawsuit in Polk County District Court in Des Moines.

It claims the state has violated the rights of citizens who have a constitutionally protected property interest in clean water in the Raccoon River for recreational and drinking water uses. The river is a primary source of drinking water for about 500,000 central Iowa customers of Des Moines Water Works.

Emma Schmitt, an organizer for Food & Water Watch who lives in a northwest Iowa county with 180 hog confinement operations, called the lawsuit a "momentous step in taking back our water for the people of Iowa."

The lawsuit asks for the court to order mandatory limits on nitrogen and phosphorous pollution entering the Raccoon River watershed, for a moratorium on new and expanding hog confinement facilities river's watershed and a declaration that the state is violating its duty owed to the people of Iowa, said Brent Newell, an attorney for California-based Public Justice, which is providing legal assistance.

Named in the lawsuit is the state of Iowa, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and the agency directors along with members of two state commissions that oversee regulation of hog farms and waterways.

Spokesmen for the attorney general's office and the DNR declined to comment.

Agriculture department spokeswoman Keely Coppess said Naig has not yet seen the lawsuit.

"While we are disappointed to learn about this lawsuit, we remain committed to implementing the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. We're focused on making measurable progress on soil conservation and water quality across the state," she said.

The strategy is a volunteer effort begun in 2013 to encourage farmers to use buffer strips, cover crops, and other conservation practices to reduce farm chemical runoff.

Environment groups have said the voluntary program has not made significant water quality improvements. They point out that Iowa's list of impaired waterways has grown to more than 750 this year from 212 in 2002.

The Iowa Farm Bureau which advocates for farmers on policy issues did not immediately respond to a message.

Holding farms responsible for water quality issues in the courts has been a difficult task.

A federal lawsuit filed by Des Moines Water Works was dismissed in March 2017. It attempted to hold farm drainage districts in three northern Iowa counties with a high concentration of hog farms responsible for high nitrate levels.

A judge determined that Iowa's water quality problems should be addressed by the Iowa Legislature.

Iowa CCI and other groups have tried for years to slow the growth of the hog industry in Iowa, the nation's largest pork producer by far with nearly 24 million pigs on farms.