Iowa state agencies and officials to stand trial for breach of Public Trust duty to prevent harm to streams, fishing, swimming, and drinking water
By Jim Olson
The foot-dragging by public officials to take action against deadly algal blooms and pollution from bad farming practices finally has reached a tipping point.
It was just a matter of time before a court would step in to force state government to implement a plan to stop the high concentrations of phosphorus, nitrites, and other harmful substances reaching our public lakes and streams from large corporate farm runoff.
Food and Water Watch, a national public interest organization, and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement have teamed up in Des Moines to file a lawsuit to force Iowa state officials and commissions for violating their duty to protect the Racoon River and the drinking water of 500,000 people.
Last year, a federal court dismissed a a similar lawsuit filed under federal law. This time, citizens and Food and Water Watch, represented by Public Justice, a national public interest law firm started decades ago by the late Dean Robb of Suttons Bay, Michigan, filed a lawsuit to protect the public trust in the navigable waters. When each state joined the Union (Iowa obtained statehood in 1846), the state took sovereign title and control over all of the navigable waters in a state in public trust for its citizens. Under this public trust the state as trustee has an obligation to protect these waters for fishing, navigation, boating, and swimming. Iowa trial judge John Hanson has ordered a trial to hear evidence on whether the state has abdicated its duty to prevent the impairment and subordination of these public rights by private interests. If the litigants are successful, the trial court will order state officials and agencies to implement a comprehensive plan to halt the continuous pollution of the source of drinking water for over 500,000 people.
Judge Hanson got it exactly right in letting this case proceed to trial. There is a legal duty under public trust law, there has been a continuing breach of that duty by the state, and it has resulted in harm and impairment to the public trust waters, resources, and public trust uses. The direct connection between the effects of activities on land that flow into public trust waters and resources is no different than if someone discharged pollutants or sediments directly into the water. In either instance, it is a direct result of needless human conduct that interferes with the natural water cycle—water falls on earth, percolates into ground, runs off into lakes and streams. Those who interfere with or harm the water in this cycle should be held accountable for damaging and failing to protect downstream public trust waters and the rights of citizens.
Watch out, Ohio officials, you’re next. I’ve argued in past blogs that the public trust in our navigable lakes and streams means that no one can pollute or impair these streams or sacrifice and subordinate the public’s rights and interests in drinking water, fishing, boating, and swimming to private purposes or interests. Ohioans and Michiganders have been plagued with annual dead zones for years now. Every summer a thick, toxic mat of green algae spreads across the western one-third of Lake Erie, endangering drinking water, killing fish, shutting down beaches, swimming, and tourism. Every year the governor of Ohio and state officials promise to do something. Every year nothing happens to stop the runoff.
Ohio’s governors and state officials have tinkered with laws to allow farmers to take voluntary actions, but have never taken action under the public trust duty to protect Lake Erie from harm, undisputedly the result of runoff of phosphorous from intensive corporate farms and extreme weather from climate change. When our leaders in the executive and legislative branches of government fail us, it is time for citizens to call on the judicial branch. Our democracy is founded on the checks and balances of three branches of government, not two.
Last week, FLOW’s senior policy advisor and noted Great Lakes policy expert Dave Dempsey called on citizens in Ohio and Michigan to take to the courts to put an end to Ohio’s truculence. I and others have argued that Ohio officials and the polluting big farms should be forced by the courts in Ohio and Michigan (Monroe County is on Lake Erie) to put an end to this blatant private confiscation of a treasured water resource that belongs to all citizens of these and surrounding states.
On behalf of all of us who live here in the Great Lakes Basin, our state government leaders must pass laws and file lawsuits to stop the dead zones and billions of dollars in damages to the businesses, cities and towns, and people. If our leaders fail us, then like the citizens of Iowa, it is time for citizens in Ohio, Michigan, and Ontario to file lawsuits under the public trust doctrine. The time for action is now.