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Iowa Supreme Court to Hear Raccoon River Lawsuit in 2020


Wednesday, December 4, 2019   

DES MOINES, Iowa – A lawsuit over nutrient pollution in a portion of Iowa's Raccoon River will stretch into 2020 as arguments are heard by the Iowa Supreme Court.

A district judge has rejected the state's request to dismiss the lawsuit, brought by two nonprofits – Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food and Water Watch. Instead, the state's high court will determine if the suit moves forward.

Brent Newell of California-based Public Justice, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said he believes a common law known as the "public trust doctrine" has been violated.

"What this lawsuit does is, it sets out legal arguments for why that right exists in Iowa law, and why the state has a duty to protect the public's right to clean water," Newell said.

Iowa CCI and other groups have tried for years to slow the growth of the hog industry in Iowa. The lawsuit asks the court to order mandatory limits on nitrogen and phosphorous pollution entering the Raccoon River watershed. The portion of the river mentioned in the suit is between the Des Moines River confluence and the Dallas/Polk county line.

The suit also asks the courts to issue a moratorium on new and expanding hog-confinement facilities in the watershed. Abby Landhuis, a lobbyist with the Iowa CCI's Action Fund, said Iowans deserve clean water.

"There's a lot of factory farms upstream from the Raccoon River, and so, it is one of the most polluted waterways," said Landhuis. "And it's significant because it provides drinking water to all of the metro surrounding Des Moines, so that's half a million people."

Two years ago, a similar lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works over high nitrate levels was dismissed by a federal judge who suggested Iowa's water quality is an issue for the Legislature. State lawmakers implemented the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy – but Newell argued that, because it's only voluntary, it isn't enough.

"And clean water shouldn't be a blue issue, it shouldn't be a red issue," he said. "It is the right of Iowans to have clean water, and that's what we hope the Iowa Supreme Court will ultimately recognize."

Iowa's high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus contribute to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone each summer and exacerbate toxic blue-green algae blooms in Iowa's lakes.

Details of the lawsuit are online at

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