The three northern Iowa counties being sued by a Des Moines water utility have received $900,000 in donations to cover most of their legal bills, but officials won't identify the donors.
The Des Moines Register reports Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun counties recently released about 260 pages of legal records to several newspapers and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.
The counties have racked up nearly $1.1 million in legal bills so far.
Officials don't believe they are required to identify the donors because state law exempts donations from foundations that support government.
Still, one of Calhoun County's attorneys, David Wollenzien, said the counties are trying to get permission from donors to share more.
The lawsuit filed last year by Des Moines Water Works alleges the three counties that oversee 10 agricultural drainage districts should be required to obtain federal water pollution discharge permits because they release pollutants into rivers much like regulated factories.
The lawsuit could affect the way farm drainage tiles are treated by environmental regulators who monitor levels of nitrogen and phosphorus.
Randy Evans, the Iowa Freedom of Information Council's executive director, said identifying the donors is important because their interests may differ from taxpayers. For example, farming groups or large agriculture corporations may be donating to the defense fund.
"Those who are paying the bills to fight the lawsuit may have a deep financial interest ... in not losing the lawsuit," Evans said. But "if the counties lose and there are damages to pay, it's the taxpayers who are on the hook."
Four Iowa agriculture groups have acknowledged making contributions to the counties' defense fund, but they have primarily done so through the Agricultural Legal Defense Fund. That makes it difficult to learn details of their contributions.
The Agribusiness Association of Iowa's members all agreed to pay 5 cents per ton of fertilizer sold over three years to help support the legal defense fund.
The Iowa Corn Growers Association donated $200,000, and the Iowa Soybean Association contributed $20,000. The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation has also donated to the fund, but officials there declined to say how much.