An Individual Duty to Protect Water

posted by Alicia Vasto on Tuesday, November 9, 2021

When it comes to our water here in Iowa, it’s popular to say “we’re all responsible for water quality.” 

Legally, that’s truer in some cases than others. 

Stream with flowersThe Iowa legislature passed the Iowa Groundwater  Protection Act in 1987. In addition to establishing new policies and programs to protect groundwater from contamination by hazardous substances, the bill established an individual duty to protect groundwater. This means that each person is individually responsible for their actions to protect groundwater from contamination. Section 455E.5(4) says, “All persons in the state have the duty to conduct their activities so as to prevent the release of contaminants into groundwater.” By entering this responsibility into Iowa Code, state lawmakers made it more than a simple platitude. 

Girl drinking waterHowever, the code language only applies to groundwater; it does not include surface waters such as rivers, lakes, and streams. In 1985, when scientists and the public were raising concerns about groundwater quality and public health, 82% of Iowans got their drinking water from groundwater sources. Today, that percentage is down to 54%. The other 46% of Iowans get their drinking water from surface water or groundwater influenced by surface water. This change is primarily driven by the growth of urban areas that more often rely on surface sources to provide enough drinking water for the populations they serve. 

With the widespread pollution currently impacting Iowa’s rivers and lakes, it is time for lawmakers to adopt an individual duty to protect surface waters. Establishing an individual duty to protect surface water would create expectations for individual conduct and activities that could cause pollution. Individuals would be responsible for how they treat our shared waterways. Having the legislature codify individual responsibility for water quality would show that the state is serious about addressing water quality and not only encouraging but requiring all Iowans to do their part.   

Lake MacBride algae bloom 2019Some countries and municipalities have gone even further by passing Environmental Rights Acts or recognizing rights for natural resources like rivers. These laws allow citizens to bring lawsuits on behalf of nature against polluters or government agencies for environmental degradation or violation of environmental standards. Citizens can directly act on behalf of the environment, without needing to demonstrate personal harm. 

To most people, it seems obvious that we shouldn’t act in ways that would contaminate public waters. However, we need and have many laws on the books that seem like common sense. With the current state of Iowa’s waters and the slow progress on practices and policies that would improve and protect water quality, such as the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, it’s time to rethink our approaches. Establishing each Iowan’s role in protecting our rivers, lakes, and streams is one place to start.  

Read IEC's recent recommendations for updating and improving the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, including creating a duty to protect surface waters

  1. clean water
  2. drinking water
  3. nitrate pollution
  4. nutrient reduction strategy
  5. phosphorus pollution
  6. toxic algae
  7. water quality

About The Author

Alicia joined the Council in 2019. She grew up in Adel, Iowa. She previously worked as the director of the Iowa Conservation Education Coalition, where she supported environmental educators and advanced environmental literacy. Alicia holds a Master of Environmental Management degree from Duke Uni ... read more