County Supervisors Prevail in Drainage Action

June 29, 2016 | Kristine A. Tidgren

No, the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit has not been settled! Rather, the Iowa Court of Appeals today issued an opinion interpreting a section of Iowa drainage law and determining that it imposes no legal duties on a county board of supervisors.

In 2014, a landowner complained to his county board of supervisors that a county road was “damming up water” on his property north of the road. The road had “at some point in time” been altered, and bridges or wooden culverts that originally allowed the natural flow of water to pass through the road had been removed. Thus, during heavy rains, the road now acted as a levee, causing water to flood the property on the north side of the road.

The supervisors sought the advice of legal counsel, who told them that “roads cannot be dams and surface water must be able to take its natural course.” The board then hired an engineer experienced with drainage matters to evaluate the situation. The engineer concluded that it was not in the public interest for the road to function as a levee and that damages would be reduced by placing two culverts through the road grade to allow the water to run its “natural course downstream over the floodplain.” He did caution that the landowners on the south side of the road would need to be prepared to manage the additional water that would now flow onto their property.

The supervisors voted to install one culvert under the road, and the south-side landowners objected, filing a petition for a writ of mandamus and injunctive relief against the board. The petition asked the court to direct the board to follow the requirements of Iowa drainage law, specifically Iowa Code § 468.600 et seq. This law requires that adjacent landowners be given notice and an opportunity to be heard when an “owner of any land” files an application to “construct a levee” or “underground drain” to secure better drainage across a highway.

The district court granted summary judgment to the supervisors, finding that Iowa Code § 468.600 et seq. did not impose any explicit duties on a board of supervisors. Rather, the district court found that those drainage law provisions were triggered when a private landowner filed an application with the county auditor. In this case, although the private landowner had made his complaint known to the board, he did not file an application. Rather, the board of supervisors had acted on its own pursuant to Iowa Code § 314.7, which imposed a duty upon “officers, employees, and contractors in charge of improvement or maintenance work on any highway” to “use strict diligence in draining the surface water from the public road in its natural channel.” The board had determined, in its discretion, that a culvert was needed to allow surface water to drain in its natural channel.

The Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed the summary judgment. The court noted that a writ of mandamus could not be used to interfere with a county board of supervisors’ reasonable exercise of discretion. Although the board could have—in its discretion—advised the north-side landowner to file an application under Iowa Code § 468.600 to secure better drainage across the highway, it had no obligation to do so. Furthermore, the court noted that the landowner expressed no desire to construct his own underground tile or drain. Instead, he complained about the road acting as a dam, and the board, in its discretion, chose to act on an independent engineering study to build a culvert. The court further stated that “drainage tile is not a culvert.” The court held that nothing in Iowa drainage law required the board to provide notice to adjacent landowners or hold hearings in the absence of a private owner’s application under Iowa Code § 468.600. Because the mandamus petition did not cite any provisions identifying a “clear duty owed by the board,” the district court properly granted summary judgment. The court could not compel the board to follow procedures that did not apply to them.

The case is Knoer v. Palo Alto County Board of Supervisors, No. 15-0742 (Iowa Ct. App. June 29, 2016).