Five years ago, John Duarte bought 450 acres of land near Redding, California, so he could grow wheat.
Because the tract of land has several wetlands and low, marshy areas, Duarte hired a consulting firm to map out where he wasn’t supposed to plow because the land was part of the drainage system for the nearby creeks.
He did this because the drainage area is considered part of the “waters of the United States” and federal law strictly regulates what is done there.
He tried to avoid most of it, but he admits some of the waters got plowed to a depth of 4-7 inches.
Because of this mistake, and because of a tiny creature called the Vernal Pool Fairy Shrimp, Duarte is facing a $2.8 million fine.
This freshwater species of shrimp is unique to California and southern Oregon and has been classified as a threatened species since 1994 because much of its wetlands in California’s Central Valley were converted to cropland or became urban. It’s about the size of a salad shrimp.
Duarte was trying to be a responsible conservator of the land. His lawyer contends that farmers plowing their fields are specifically exempt from the Clean Water Act rules forbidding discharging material into U.S. waters.
But get this: The U.S. Attorney’s office claims that Duarte’s tractor was not plowing the field. Rather, it was equipped with a ripper that had seven 36-inch shanks, which dug an average of 10 inches deep into the soil.
Duarte denies this.
Regardless, this would be the first time in American history that a farmer is being told that a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit is needed to plant and grow crops, USA Today reports. “We’re not going to produce much food under those kinds of regulations,” attorney Anthony Francois said.
The federal government wouldn’t comment, but their court filings show some of their rationale.
“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.
Francois said he thought the proposed penalties were unfair. 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?”
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