Opponents of the legislative effort to disband the Des Moines Water Works got a boost yesterday when the water utility’s Board of Trustees voted not to appeal last month’s federal court ruling dismissing their lawsuit against three northwest Iowa counties. The Iowa Farm Bureau’s wrath over that case inspired a bill that would transfer authority over the Des Moines Water Works to three area city councils.
Agriculture committees in the Iowa House and Senate advanced versions of the Water Works bill, but neither chamber voted on the measure before a “funnel” deadline in late March. Several House and Senate Republicans representing districts with independently-managed water utilities spoke privately about opposing the bill.
Among Iowans who have been fighting this legislative overreach, one big fear has been that powerful Republicans would slip Water Works language into an appropriations bill during the final days of the session. Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Charles Schneider has pledged not to do so, but his House counterpart Pat Grassley has made no such promise. The deadline for appealing the federal court ruling was coming up on April 17, and some Water Works supporters worried that pursuing the case might strengthen the Farm Bureau’s allies at the Capitol, who are still trying to get this language to Governor Terry Branstad.
Instead, the Water Works will waive its right to appeal in exchange for the defendants agreeing not to pursue legal fees. According to Laura Sarcone, communications specialist for the water utility, the next step will be defense counsel getting the boards of supervisors of Sac, Buena Vista, and Calhoun counties to sign off on the agreement. The U.S. Department of Justice would also have to approve the resolution.
I would guess that the county supervisors will happily agree not to pursue legal fees in exchange for finalizing an end to the lawsuit. After all, the cost of defending the case didn’t come out of their budgets. As Art Cullen discussed in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of editorials for the Storm Lake Times, secret donors, supposedly unknown even to the county supervisors themselves, paid for the first $1 million or so of the defendants’ legal expenses. The Iowa Farm Bureau and Iowa Corn Growers Association stepped in to cover the rest.
I enclose below a Water Works news release and the ruling from U.S. District Court Chief Judge Leonard Strand. In dismissing the case, he found that the Water Works “may well have suffered an injury” from pollutants entering waterways in the named counties, but the northwest Iowa drainage districts “lack the ability to redress that injury.” Almost certainly, the Water Works would not have prevailed on appeal to the Eighth Circuit. The lawsuit accomplished only one thing: making Iowa’s dirty water a more salient political issue. Even so, bills that would address the major source of the problem–agricultural runoff–have no more traction now than they ever did.
APRIL 19 UPDATE: No Water Works provisions are in the standings bill Schneider introduced this week.