Farm Drainage Revisited: Will Tile-drain Effluent Be Considered A Point Source and Fall Under Clean Water Act Regulation?

Theodore Harrington, MJLST Managing Editor

For years, nutrients from farming operations have been leaking into the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers, and ultimately arriving at the mouth of the Mighty Mississippi. These nutrients, most notably nitrate and phosphorus, are the result of both fertilizers and natural crop growth and have deleterious effects on humans and the environment. As these nutrients mix with groundwater just below the surface, a polluted effluent is created. This effluent is then drained through a grid of plastic piping a few feet below the soil.

Nearly two years ago, Des Moines Water Works (DMWW), a public water utility, sued the Drainage Districts in Sac, Buena Vista, and Calhoun Counties to recover monies spent treating the polluted effluent to make it safe for public consumption. Defendants contend that the polluted effluent does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act, and therefore DMWW is the appropriate entity to bear these costs, which approach $7,000 per day!

Where it stands: Summary Judgment briefs were traded in May and June of last year. Since then, oral arguments have been heard by the Iowa Supreme Court since September 14, 2016. (Click HERE to see John Lande arguing for the Board of Water Works and Michael Reck arguing for the counties.) A federal trial in front of Judge Leonard Strand is set for this coming June in the Northern District of Iowa. The trial will come two and a half years after the original filing, and lengthy appeals, possibly to the Supreme Court, are likely to follow. Though it will be years before we have an answer to the question titling this post, the judgment’s consequences will reach beyond individual farms to the heart of the industry.

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