The Raccoon River is a 30.8-mile-long tributary of the Des Moines River in central Iowa.
The Raccoon River is a 30.8-mile-long tributary of the Des Moines River in central Iowa.

Farmers in Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista exhaled a collective sigh of relief this week when Iowa’s Supreme Court ruled Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) cannot sue the counties. The company was seeking damages for excess nitrates in the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers.

“Tile lines are the biggest contributor—that’s why the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers are hot spots,” says DMWW CEO Bill Stowe.

Nitrate runoff led the group to install a denitrification system in 1993, a system Stowe says needs an $80 million upgrade to tackle current water demand and increased nitrate levels. The court’s opinion says the basis of the DMWW lawsuit is not supported by law. However, court documents also state that while no law was broken, it’s critical that farmers be good stewards of the land.

“Pollution of our streams is wrong, irrespective of its source or its cause,” the court opinion documents state. “I believe the focus of our attention should be the end to which the lawsuit is directed.”

The lawsuit’s end outlines the importance of good stewardship. Because the lawsuit began, more organizations, federal dollars and farmers have taken steps toward better stewardship.

“Four years ago was the first year we got dollars for soil and water quality,” says Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, Bill Northerly. “Now, we get $9.6 million federal [annually].”

IAWA, the Soil Health Partnership, the National Resources Conservation Service and private industry have joined in collaborative efforts to encourage farmers to voluntarily employ conservation practices, including $48 million raised to implement more on-farm conservation programs.

“We’ve seen unprecedented engagement from private industry,” says Sean McMahon, IAWA executive director. “We expect this to add to the progress that Iowa’s farmers have already made.”

Lawsuits from DMWW aren’t over just yet, however. On the federal stage, DMWW is asking that tile lines change from nonpoint source pollution to point source, which would require farmers to get permits for any potential runoff. This federal trial is scheduled to begin June 28, 2017.

As soil and water quality awareness rises across the country all eyes are on Des Moines. Famers might count today’s court ruling as a win, but the federal lawsuit’s outcome could create new precedents in agriculture.