Two social justice organizations, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (ICCI) and Food and Water Watch (FWW) have been seeking to compel the State of Iowa to enact legislation that would require farmers to adopt measures that would reduce levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the Raccoon River. ICCI and FWW allege that farmers contribute to the toxins in the Raccoon River when they use fertilizer and manure on crops, which contain nitrogen and phosphorus and runs off into the water supply; specifically the Raccoon River.

The organizations recently sought relief through the courts under a legal theory to expand the scope of the public trust doctrine. The public trust doctrine is historically narrow and reserved for ensuring access to, or entry into, public bodies of water without interference from private parties claiming such bodies of water as their own. ICCI and FWW argued for a more expansive interpretation of the public trust doctrine that went beyond interference from impermissible private party ownership. The organizations asserted that the doctrine should apply in this case because runoff generated by farmers makes the Raccoon River less aesthetically pleasing, unfit for kayaking and swimming, and unclean for drinking water. While the court showed restraint to expand the scope of the doctrine, it did not rule on the merits of this claim. Instead, the court focused on procedural issues regarding whether the organizations had standing and whether this was a nonjusticiable political question.

The court concluded that ICCI and FWW lacked standing because they failed to show a concrete injury that could likely be redressed by a favorable decision. It asserted that the connection between the organizations’ alleged injuries from the Raccoon River’s rising toxin levels and local farmers using fertilizer and manure on crops was too attenuated. In addition, the organizations did not offer enough support to convince the court that forcing farmers to mitigate their toxic runoff would likely improve the Raccoon River’s water quality.

The court found that this was a nonjusticiable political question that could not be answered using accepted methods of the judicial process. First, the court asserted that the organizations’ claim – that the public trust doctrine broadly protects the public’s use of navigable waters – did not offer any legal standards to resolve the issue. The court could not balance farmers’ economic interests in their crops against the public’s interest in enjoying the Raccoon River and cleaner drinking water. Second, a decision in favor of the organizations meant the court would force the legislative branch to create legislation to remedy the alleged injuries. Such a scenario raised separation of powers concerns as the court would become too influential in the legislative process.

In short, the court did not opine on whether the public trust doctrine should be expanded and instead dismissed the case on the procedural grounds of standing and a nonjusticiable political question.