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Iowa Supreme Court Rules for the State in Raccoon River Case

Image of dairy farm
Photo Credit Edwin Remsberg

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On June 18th the Iowa Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, dismissed a case in which the plaintiffs cited the public trust doctrine as a basis to compel the state to adopt mandatory agricultural water pollution controls. The case was brought by the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch groups against the State of Iowa and various state agencies and officials. The plaintiffs argued the state’s voluntary nutrient management strategy is insufficient and has failed to protect the Raccoon River as a public resource for drinking water and recreation.

This ruling is relevant for Maryland farmers because had the plaintiffs' strategy been successful, the decision is the type of legal precedent that could be utilized to require more stringent environmental protections for the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Public Trust Doctrine

Although the court ruled on the propriety of a motion to dismiss, rather than the merits of the case, Justice Edward Mansfield, the author of the majority opinion, took the opportunity to opine on the plaintiff's reliance on the public trust doctrine.

According to the public trust doctrine, the state is the trustee or steward of the state’s natural resources, including navigable waters. The public trust doctrine traditionally applies to the beds of navigable waters and requires that the waters be both protected and held open for the navigational access of the public (this is the reason you can erect a fence around a pond on your property but not block a navigable river your property abuts). The application of the doctrine, however, has also been applied to embrace the public's use of navigable waters for recreation.

The Racoon River, according to this source, is a primary supply of water for approximately 500,000 people but is routinely contaminated with high levels of nitrates and other nutrients related to livestock manure and fertilizer runoff from farm fields. The plaintiffs argued the public trust doctrine imposed a duty on the state of Iowa to pass laws that regulate navigable waters in the best interests of the public and protect public waters from pollution.


In general, a plaintiff must have the standing to bring a case in court. In order to prove legal standing, he/she must claim (1) a concrete injury, (2) caused by the defendant, (3) that the court can remedy via a favorable judicial decision. When the asserted injury arises from the government’s failure to regulate, according to the court, “the plaintiff must establish ‘a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of’ and prove that the injury is ‘ “likely” (as opposed to merely “speculative”) to be “redressed by a favorable decision.”

The plaintiffs claimed the degradation of the river and the resulting reduced ability to recreate and utilize the Raccoon River was an injury caused by the defendants' inadequate nutrient management program. The legal redress sought was a court order requiring the defendants to create a mandatory nutrient management program with nitrogen and phosphorus limitations for farmers in the Raccoon Valley watershed.

The court found that the requested relief was too speculative. In other words, there was no clear evidence that a mandatory nutrient management program would actually improve the water quality of the Racoon River and better recreational use. The court also held, "the plaintiffs’ effort to repurpose the historically narrow public trust doctrine to solve a complex environmental problem presents a nonjusticiable political question."

Courts can invoke the political question doctrine as grounds for dismissal where the plaintiffs put forth claims that the judiciary cannot meaningfully resolve using accepted methods of judicial decision making. In other words, the remedy would result in outcomes that are unworkable for courts to administer. In the case, the plaintiff’s requested remedy, to order the legislature to enact a new set of environmental laws that balance the competing interests of stakeholders, exceeded the accepted role of courts and "would entangle the court in overseeing the political branches of government." Therefore, the court ruled to reverse the lower court's order and remand with instructions to dismiss the case.

Dissenting Opinions

Justice Christopher McDonald disagreed with the decision to dismiss the case and explained that it might not be possible for the judicial branch to arrange a constitutional solution regulating the Raccoon River, however, this case “is at the headwaters,” and should be allowed to “continue downstream.”

In another dissenting opinion, Justice Brent Appel disagreed with the majority’s interpretation of standing, explaining "the plaintiffs do not need to show that the requested relief will solve the problem completely but only that it will do some good.”


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