State Court Declines to Use Public Trust Doctrine in Lawsuit over Water Quality

This is not a substitute for legal advice.

Image of crossing over the Raccoon River in Iowa. Image is by Michael Leland

            The Supreme Court of Iowa recently found that a dispute brought by two groups against the state of Iowa lacked standing and was not an issue the courts could decide.  The two groups claim that excessive nitrate levels from agricultural runoff into the Raccoon River had impaired recreational uses of the river and increased costs to purify the water for drinking.  The decision, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement v. State of Iowa, can be found here.

Background

            Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (ICCI) and Food and Water Watch (FWW) brought a lawsuit against the state of Iowa to clean up nitrate levels in Iowa’s Raccoon River.  According to the ICCI and FWW, the use of manure from animal feeding operations on corn and soybeans has caused increased nitrate levels in the river and increased costs to make the water safe for drinking.  In 2018, the state legislature approved a state strategy to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus water pollution through best management practices.  But only limited progress has been made implementing these strategies.

            ICCI and FWW brought their claims based on the Iowa public trust doctrine (more on that doctrine later).  Both parties claimed that the state of Iowa had a duty to protect the public use of navigable waters by protecting against their impairment.  Both parties moved for an injunction requiring the state of Iowa to adopt a mandatory plan to limit discharges from animal feeding operations in the Raccoon watershed.  The state moved to dismiss based on lacking standing, the issue not being appropriate for the courts, and failure to exhaust other remedies.  The trial court denied that motion and the state appealed to the state supreme court.

Public Trust Doctrine

            The public trust doctrine is a property law doctrine which holds specific natural resources preserved for general use by the state.  This doctrine is commonly applied to water resources.  The state government typically holds certain lakes, rivers, and streams open to the public for use and enjoyment, and the state cannot give away this public interest.  For example, for a river with recreational value, the state would hold the waters in public trust for recreational users to use. However, riparian property owners, those who own property that the river passes through, still have title to the stream beds to the center of the stream.  In my example, a riparian owner could not prevent a recreational user from using the river but could prevent the recreational user from going beyond the property held in public trust.

Sunset over Iowa farmland by Brad Covington

Court’s Decision

            The main issues on appeal were: do the parties have standing to bring the case, could a court hear the dispute, and is the disagreement justiciable (subject to trial in a court of law).  Courts often require that parties have a legally protectable interest in a dispute, also known as standing. For example, you and your neighbor are having a property line dispute.  You and your neighbor would have standing in any dispute involving the property line, but a property owner a mile away would not have standing in a property line dispute between you and your neighbor. 

            In Iowa, the courts typically require a party to meet a two-prong test to show standing to bring a claim.  First, a party must have a specific personal or legal interest in the lawsuit. Second, the party must be injuriously affected. The two groups were claiming that the injury arose from Colorado’s failure to regulate animal feeding operations. It was speculative to the court that a favorable decision could lead to a cleaner Raccoon River. The court highlighted that currently, the agencies included in the lawsuit do not have the authority to require nutrient limits on nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural sources. The courts held that ICCI and FWW did not have the standing to bring this case.

            The court next turned to whether ICCI and FWW claims amounted to a non-justiciable political question. The political question doctrine is a legal principle where courts will routinely defer specific issues to another branch of government, such as the legislative or executive branches. The idea behind the political question doctrine is whether the court system is the appropriate venue to hear this issue or better suited for an elected branch to handle.

            The court turns to determining if the claims are political questions.  ICCI and FWW were looking to expand the public trust doctrine, which is based on property law.  Previous decisions had held that the public trust doctrine is based around the idea that the state is the steward of natural resources, but it is a narrow doctrine.  Past decisions had limited the public use doctrine to the public’s use of the resource.  To the court, this meant accessing the resource free of obstruction and interference from a private person.  At the same time, past decisions involving the public trust doctrine prevented the court from second-guessing regulatory decisions made by elected bodies and strictly limited to prohibiting the state from conveying certain natural resources to private parties.

            Although the public trust doctrine is based on property law, the court could not find discoverable and manageable standards for a court in this situation.  The current dispute required the court to balance both the interest of agriculture versus recreational uses and additional costs on agriculture versus recreation.  The court also disagreed with an argument that the court could order the legislature to pass legislation limiting nitrate levels in the river.  This would raise separation of powers concerns, allowing the courts to exercise veto power over the legislature.  The court reversed the lower court ruling and dismissed the case for lack of standing and a non-justiciable political question.

Why Care?

            This is not the first dispute in the Raccoon River watershed.  The Des Moines Water Works had already sought to recover money to remove access nitrates from drainage districts in Iowa.  That lawsuit was also unsuccessful. For more, click here.

            This case highlights that not everything is a dispute the courts can handle.  To the Supreme Court of Iowa, this dispute required the courts to step into the role of the elected legislature and potentially violate the separation of powers principles laid out by the state constitution.  Here the court saw the dispute as a political question needing to be addressed by the legislature.  The ongoing controversy in the Raccoon River watershed will be interesting to continue following.

References

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement v. State of Iowa, No. 19-1644, 2021 WL 2483412 (Iowa, June 18, 2021).

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