Why a Federal Court Dismissed the DMWW Lawsuit

March 18, 2017 | Kristine A. Tidgren

Update: On April 11, 2017, DMWW announced that it would not be appealing this decision.

Two years and one day after the Board of Water Works Trustees for the City of Des Moines (DMWW) filed its controversial lawsuit against the drainage districts in three northwest Iowa counties, a federal court has dismissed the action in its entirety.

After two years and the expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars, the merits of the case were never considered. The court was required to dismiss the lawsuit after finding that—even if DMWW was able to prove an injury—the drainage districts would have no ability to redress (or remedy) that injury. In other words, the drainage districts were not the proper defendants for this Clean Water Act lawsuit.

Iowa law was clear from the beginning. The Supreme Court had long held that a drainage district is “merely an area of land, not an entity subject to a judgment for tort damages.” As we explained when the lawsuit was filed:

[This law] recogni[zes] that the sole purpose and function of the drainage district is to facilitate the construction and maintenance of a unified drainage tile system. The trustees have no authority to act outside of their narrow responsibilities of creating and maintaining what is in most places a 100-year-old system. Therefore, the courts have allowed lawsuits against these districts only where the claims implicate a specific statutorily granted power or duty granted to the district. In other words, a court can compel a drainage district to fix damaged drainage tile. It is difficult to see, however, how a court could compel the drainage district to cease “all discharges of nitrate that are not authorized by an NPDES or state operating permit.” Drainage district trustees attempting to take such actions by regulating farming practices or dictating land use would be acting outside of their statutory authority.

DMWW acknowledged Iowa law, but argued that it was outdated and inapplicable to the facts at hand. DMWW asserted that this was a “new day” and that the court should have applied a “new rule of liability and responsibility for drainage districts concerning pollution.” DMWW urged that “implied immunity has survived through repetition rather than critical analysis.”

But the Iowa Supreme Court disagreed, ruling at the end of January that Iowa drainage districts are immune from claims for damages or injunctive relief. The Court affirmed that such districts have a “limited,  targeted  role—to  facilitate  the  drainage  of  farmland  in  order  to  make it more productive.” The Court declared that it is for the Iowa Legislature, not the courts, to change that result.

The Iowa Supreme Court was answering certified questions related to the tort law claims DMWW filed against the districts, but the federal court found that this ruling applied equally to the Clean Water Act claims. In other words, even if DMWW were to prevail in its Clean Water Act claims against the districts, drainage districts would have no legal ability to redress DMWW’s alleged injuries. If a claim is not redressable, meaning that the party against whom the suit is brought cannot provide a remedy, a federal court has no jurisdiction to hear it.[i]  Consequently, the federal court dismissed the tort and the Clean Water Act claims for lack of standing.

The federal court also found no merit to DMWW’s claims that its constitutional rights were violated. The court ruled that the immunity Iowa law affords to drainage districts does not violate the Equal Protection Clause or the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution. The court noted that DMWW’s policy arguments are best directed to the Iowa Legislature.  Finally, the court also fully agreed with the Iowa Supreme Court’s analysis of DMWW’s takings claim. “A public entity such as DMWW cannot assert a Fifth Amendment takings claim against another political subdivision of the state.”

With that, the March 17, 2017, order dismissed the entire action.

What's Next?

DMWW will have 30 days to appeal the judge’s order. Given the grounds upon which the suit was dismissed, it seems unlikely that the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals would reverse this decision.

This lawsuit has brought increased attention to Iowa's water quality issues. The Water Quality Initiative, implementing the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, has continued to gain traction since its inception in 2013. Pending legislation would establish a more comprehensive framework for funding water quality projects, although budget constraints may get in the way. More than $340 million in state and federal funds were directed to Iowa water quality programs last year. Earlier this week, Rep. Bobby Kaufmann announced in a press conferenced that he and 11 other representatives were introducing a bill, the Water, Infrastructure, Soil for our Economy (WISE) water quality solution, that would fund water quality efforts through an increase in the state sales tax. The language of this proposed legislation is not yet available.

We’ll continue to keep you posted as developments unfold.


[i] Article III of the United States Constitution limits a federal court’s jurisdiction to “cases” and “controversies.” To have a justiciable case or controversy, the plaintiff must have standing. To establish standing, a plaintiff must show (1) the existence of an injury, (2) a causal connection between that injury and the defendant’s conduct, and (3) a likelihood that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision.