A lawsuit brought against the State of Iowa alleging that the State – and various departments and officials – has failed to sufficiently protect the public’s use of the Raccoon River was ultimately halted by a divided Iowa Supreme Court earlier this month.
The lawsuit, initially brought forth by Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (“ICCI”) and Food & Water Watch (“FWW”) in 2019, specifically relied on the Public Trust Doctrine. Under this doctrine, the two organizations argued that the State is a “trustee” of the navigable waters within its jurisdiction, and therefore, it has an affirmative duty to protect the Raccoon River and other navigable waters for public use.
Specifically, the organizations alleged that the State has failed to 1) stop pollution from impacting the Raccoon River, 2) regulate animal feeding operations, and 3) set numeric stream and water quality standards. Among other relief sought, ICCI and FWW requested that the Court issue a declaration that the State indeed violated the Public Trust Doctrine by not protecting the public’s recreational and drinking water use, and even further, issue an injunction requiring the State to adopt and implement a mandatory remedial plan to restore and protect public use of the waters within our borders.
The Court found that these arguments were without merit, determining that the respective members of ICCI and FWW did not have standing to bring forth their claims. In its majority opinion, the Court specifically noted that even if it were to find for the two organizations, “it is speculative that a favorable court decision in this litigation would lead to a more aesthetically pleasing Raccoon River, better swimming and kayaking on the river, and lower water rates in the Des Moines metropolitan area.” Put simply, the organizations were seeking broad, abstract declarations that did not provide any assurance of concrete results or redress of the organizations’ alleged harms. Further, the Court reasoned that the claims brought forth by ICCI and FWW raised political questions that the Iowa legislature – as opposed to the court system – should address. The Court explained that imposing an affirmative duty on the State to pass laws that regulate our waters, and requiring the judiciary to continuously monitor and enforce this duty, would simply not be feasible or effective. Such action would go beyond the accepted role of judges and would encroach on the other branches of government whose role it is to represent our citizens.
Unsurprisingly, representatives for ICCI and FWW have indicated that while the ruling is a disappointment, they are already considering other options. Stakeholders and industry members should continue to monitor these developments for similar claims brought forth in the future.
For questions, contact your BrownWinick attorney or a member of our Environmental team.