In a 3-2 decision issued on January 27, 2017, Iowa’s Supreme Court refused to overturn long-standing precedent that drainage districts in Iowa are not susceptible to suit for money damages. The agricultural community in Iowa had been waiting on pins and needles for answers to four questions certified to the Iowa Supreme Court in a case brought by the Des Moines Waterworks against the Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista County Boards of Supervisors as trustees of their respective drainage districts. The suit alleges that, among other things, the drainage districts are responsible for increased nitrate levels in the Raccoon River.
The four certified questions were as follows:
- As a matter of Iowa law, does the doctrine of implied immunity of drainage districts as applied in cases such as Fisher v. Dallas County, 369 N.W.2d 426 (Iowa 1985), grant drainage districts unqualified immunity from all of the damage claims set forth in the complaint (docket no. 2)?
- As a matter of Iowa law, does the doctrine of implied immunity grant drainage districts unqualified immunity from equitable remedies and claims other than mandamus?
- As a matter of Iowa law, can the plaintiff assert protections afforded by the Iowa Constitution’s inalienable rights, due process, equal protection, and takings clauses against drainage districts as alleged in the complaint?
- As a matter of Iowa law, does the plaintiff have a property interest that may be the subject of a claim under the Iowa Constitution’s takings clause as alleged in the complaint?
The Iowa Supreme Court’s determinations on all four questions were favorable to Iowa’s agricultural community. In his majority opinion, Justice Thomas D. Waterman stated “[i]n sum, a century’s worth of precedent, including a case our court decided unanimously just four years ago, precludes any remedy against drainage districts other than mandamus.” While this is not the end for the Des Moines Waterworks case, which still must answer whether agricultural drainage tile is a point source for purposes of federal environmental permitting; this ruling was a huge win for farmers and other agricultural-based businesses across Iowa. These remaining federal issues will be tried in Federal Court in June of this year.
The full text of Justice Waterman’s January 27, 2017 opinion as well as dissenting opinions from Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justice Brent Appel in the Des Moines Waterworks case can be found here: