Lawyers for environmental groups and the state of Iowa tangled before the state’s Supreme Court Wednesday over whether a case challenging Iowa’s voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy should be allowed to proceed.
Much of the argument focused on whether the groups, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch, have legal standing to bring their claims. Iowa Solicitor General Jeffrey Thompson said they had not met the standing test, in part because they had not “sued the right people,” although he did not say exactly whom they should have named as defendants.
The groups’ complaint named the state of Iowa, the Department of Natural Resources, the Environmental Protection Commission and the Natural Resources Commission, and the commissioners themselves, as well as the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.
Thompson agreed that the state’s Public Trust Doctrine, which the groups say Iowa has violated, does impose an “affirmative obligation” on the state to protect natural resources, but called it “very limited.”
Brent Newell of Public Justice, representing ICCI and FWW, however, said the doctrine is broad enough to encompass use and enjoyment of the Raccoon River, whose impairment by nutrient pollution is at the heart of the case.
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The groups are seeking declarations that the legislature’s decision in 2018 to codify the voluntary Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is unconstitutional and that the state has violated its duty to protect the Raccoon River for public use. They also want mandatory relief in the form of a remedial plan to address nonpoint source agricultural pollution in the Raccoon River watershed, and by having the state impose a moratorium on new and expanded animal feeding operations in the watershed.
The state Supreme Court will decide, probably by early next year, whether the case should proceed in Polk County district court, where a judge last year rejected the state’s motion to dismiss the case.
The justices did not indicate how they might rule but were actively engaged in the argument, asking pointed questions of both lawyers.
One issue is whether the relief sought will actually get ICCI and FWW what they are seeking, which goes to both the “causation” and “redressability” parts of the standing test — requirements under federal law but not in Iowa law.
The district court said neither were part of the case, but the state has argued the district court got it wrong.
ICCI and FWW say the state is mistaken in arguing that federal standing requirements apply in the case. Even if they do, however, Newell said the groups had met those tests, in part by asking for a mandatory remedial plan for the watershed.
In addition, he said, “the court should presume that the legislature is going to act in accordance” with any declaratory relief ordered by the court.
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