Iowa Policy Points

Turning drainage districts into a solution

It is disappointing but perhaps not surprising that those charged with operating drainage districts in the state are rebelling at the thought that someone might expect them to act on behalf of the public.

A new Iowa Policy Project paper suggests answers to nitrate contamination of Iowa waters and the Mississippi River Basin exist within drainage districts that currently are part of the problem.

Our paper notes that drainage districts “short-circuit” natural conditions that can remove nitrates before water moves on. From the paper:

“It is clear from years of research and observations that nitrate contamination of our waterways is a direct response to the cultivation of annual row crops and it is exacerbated by artificial drainage. The infrastructure of drainage districts, in particular, creates conditions for mass collection and rapid transport of nitrate pollution into our waterways.”

In a Cedar Rapids Gazette story today, John Torbert of the Iowa Drainage District Association, says that drainage districts’ “sole purpose of existing is to drain excess water from the land.” That is a very incomplete understanding of their role.

What Torbert leaving out is the law’s requirement that districts will be set up (and other county-inspired actions taken on drainage) that are “conducive to the public health, convenience or welfare.” (Chapter 468.1) In fact, ironically, even his association quotes similar language from the next section of the state law on the front page of its own website (below),

That subsection, also cited and quoted in the IPP paper (page 4) puts a responsibility on drainage districts to be set up for the public good.

Note the language is not that these districts exist to support polluters’ health, convenience or welfare. Their existence is grounded in a principle of public good, the common good.


David Osterberg, founder of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project