Court Settles Neighbors’ Dispute over Water Drainage

April 11, 2023 | Jennifer Harrington

The Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of two neighboring landowners’ claims against each other in a water drainage dispute. For many years, the neighbors had argued about the proper flow of water, eventually using self-help techniques to control the water. The court found that the water flow prior to the self-help techniques determined the appropriate burdens between the parcels. However, it could not order injunctive relief for the dominant parcel because the trial court did not rule on that neighbor’s claim for injunctive relief.


The primary issue in this lawsuit was the downhill flow of water through three residential properties. All parties involved in this case were neighbors. Sometime in the 1950s or 60s, Dubuque County began to manage the water flow by installing a forty-two-inch culvert under an east-to-west county road. The culvert drains the water onto the Mangers property. The water then drained through two culverts privately installed under a private gravel road onto the Thill property. Thill and the Waltzes—neighbors to the northeast—used the gravel road to access their properties. In 1995, Thill, unhappy with the water flowing through the two culverts onto the property, began blocking the culverts under the gravel road with debris, rocks, and other material. In response, Mangers “built an earthen berm and timber plank barricade along the south and east of his property.” Thill continued blocking the culverts with debris and rocks.

The gravel road was constantly flooding. This prevented the Walzes, from accessing their property since the only entrance was the gravel road. In 2020, the Walzes sued Thill, asking the court for damages and injunctive relief. Specifically, they asked the court to order Thill to stop blocking the culverts and repair them to their original condition.

Thill responded to this lawsuit by filing a third-party petition against Mangers for trespass and nuisance. She also asked the Court for injunctive relief against Mangers.  Mangers responded by counter-suing Thill with trespass and nuisance claims. 

After a bench trial, with opposing expert testimony presented by Mangers and Thill, the district court dismissed all the claims. Mangers and Thill appealed the ruling, but the Walzes did not. On appeal, Mangers claims the district court erred when it did not order Thill to stop blocking the culverts and to repair them. Thill challenged the district court’s dismissal of her nuisance claim and failure to order injunctive relief.


The Court of Appeals confirmed that nuisance is an appropriate action to bring when one neighbor unlawful diverts water from its natural course. Iowa Code § 657.2(4). “Surface water in a natural watercourse” is allowed to drain from one parcel to another. O’Tool v. Hathaway, 461 N.W.2d 161, 163 (Iowa 1990). The servient parcel does not have remedy against the dominant parcel for the damage the water causes by flowing across their property, and cannot interrupt or prevent the natural flow of water. However, if the dominant landowner does something that causes the volume of water to increase or manner of flow to substantially change, “then the servient owner is entitled to relief.” Id.

In this situation, Mangers is the dominant landowner because the parcel is at higher elevation than the Thill property. The court then had to determine the natural flow of water in order to determine if either the dominant landowner or servient landowner acted unlawfully. The court reviewed the testimony of experts presented by both Mangers and Thill to make this determination. 

Mangers’ expert reviewed the geological record back to the 1930s. Thill’s expert only focused on the current water flow. Mangers’ expert concluded that the blocking of the culverts began the water flow problems, while Thill’s expert asserted that the culverts were never functional. The court found Mangers’ expert’s testimony to be more persuasive and found that the water from the gravel culverts would naturally flow through the Thill property. Therefore, Thill’s nuisance claim failed because she did not prove that Mangers unlawfully changed the manner of natural water flow. 

Finally, the court examined Mangers’ appeal for injunctive relief. The court found that Mangers could not appeal its claim for injunctive relief because the district court did not rule on the claim. Although Mangers asked for injunctive relief at trial and in the post-trial brief and Thill did not object, the court never acknowledge the argument in its final ruling. While the district court had dismissed the Walzes’ request for injunctive relief, the court of appeals could not overturn that order because the Walzes did not appeal and Mangers “cannot do so in their place.”