Damon Arthur , Record Searchlight
Published 5:57 p.m. PT May 22, 2017
A farmer faces trial in federal court this summer and a $2.8 million fine for failing to get a permit to plow his field and plant wheat in Tehama County.
A lawyer for Duarte Nursery said the case is important because it could set a precedent requiring other farmers to obtain costly, time-consuming permits just to plow their fields.
“The case is the first time that we’re aware of that says you need to get a (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) permit to plow to grow crops,” said Anthony Francois, an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation.
“We’re not going to produce much food under those kinds of regulations,” he said.
However, U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller agreed with the Army Corps in a judgment issued in June 2016. A penalty trial, in which the U.S. Attorney’s Office asks for $2.8 million in civil penalties, is set for August.
The case began in 2012 when John Duarte, who owns Duarte Nursery near Modesto, bought 450 acres south of Red Bluff at Paskenta Road and Dusty Way west of Interstate 5.
According to Francois and court documents, Duarte planned to grow wheat there.
Because the property has numerous swales and wetlands, Duarte hired a consulting firm to map out areas on the property that were not to be plowed because they were part of the drainage for Coyote and Oat creeks and were considered “waters of the United States.”
Francois conceded that some of the wetlands were plowed, but they were not significantly damaged. He said the ground was plowed to a depth of 4 inches to 7 inches.
The Army did not claim Duarte violated the Endangered Species Act by destroying fairy shrimp or their habitat, Francois said.
The wheat was planted but not harvested because in February 2013 the Army Corps of Engineers and the California Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board issued orders to stop work at the site because Duarte had violated the Clean Water Act by not obtaining a permit to discharge dredged or fill material into seasonal wetlands considered waters of the United States.
Duarte sued the Army Corps and the state, alleging they violated his constitutional right of due process under the law by issuing the cease and desist orders without a hearing. The U.S. Attorney’s Office counter-sued Duarte Nursery to enforce the Clean Water Act violation.
Farmers plowing their fields are specifically exempt from the Clean Water Act rules forbidding discharging material into U.S. waters, Francois said.
However, according court documents filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Sacramento, the tractor was not plowing the field. Rather, it was equipped with a ripper, with seven 36-inch ripper shanks that dug an average of 10 inches deep into the soil.
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Also, the U.S. Attorney alleges, Duarte ripped portions of the property that included wetland areas.
The ripping deposited dirt into wetlands and streams on the property, in violation of the Clean Water Act, according to documents filed by the U.S. Attorney.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Broderick said he could not comment on the case and referred questions to his office’s public affairs department, which did not call back Monday.
However, documents filed in court explain some of the rationale behind the government’s case.
“Even under the farming exemption, a discharge of dredged or fill material incidental to the farming activities that impairs the flow of the waters of the United States still requires a permit, because it changes the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the waters,” the U.S. Attorney said in court filings.
The creeks also flow into the Sacramento River, home to endangered salmon.
In addition to civil penalties, the attorney’s office is also asking the judge to order Duarte to repair the damage to the wetlands, including smoothing out the soil and replanting native plants in the wetlands.
He may also be required to purchase other wetlands to compensate for the alleged damage to the property south of Red Bluff, according to the U.S. Attorney’s proposed penalties.
Francois said he thought the proposed penalties were unfair because his client thought the plowing exemption allowed him to till the soil.
“A plain reading of the rules says you don’t need a permit to do what he did,” Francois said. “How do you impose a multimillion penalty on someone for thinking the law says what it says.”