Government Forces Farmer Fined $2.8 Million for Plowing His Own Field to Settle

After years of fighting, John Duarte seems to have given up.

The Northern California farmer has settled with the federal government after being fined for plowing over protected wetlands on his property.

His cased attracted a massive army of supporters who saw the federal overreach as an example of an out-of-control government, with many lobbying the Trump Administration to step in.

But right before his trial was set to start, Duarte settled.

The farmer agreed to pay $1.1 million in fees and other costs for running afoul of federal environmental laws in 2012. He said he reluctantly accepted the settlement because if he lost the case, the government wanted as much as $48 million in fines and penalties, which would destroy his Modesto nursery with hundreds of employees.

It all started five years ago, when he bought 450 acres of land to 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.

This would have been the first time in American history that a farmer has been 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 Sacramento Bee reported on the settlement:

Duarte and his allies, including the leader of the American Farm Bureau and Republican members of Congress, called it a classic case of government meddling with agriculture. The Trump administration already has moved to relax the “Waters of the United States” rules that the Obama administration had sought to expand, and the congressmen were pressing Attorney General Jeff Sessions to drop the case against Duarte altogether.

Despite settling for far less than they were seeking, federal officials said the agreement shows the law must be obeyed.

“Today’s agreement affirms the Department of Justice’s commitment to the rule of law, results in meaningful environmental restoration, and brings to an end protracted litigation,” said Jeffrey Wood, acting assistant attorney general, in a prepared statement.

Farm advocates said the rules covering agriculture and the environment remain muddled. “We’re still looking at the same kinds of risks going forward that (Duarte) was facing,” said Mike Wade of the California Farm Water Coalition. “It would have been nice knowing … where we are in terms of federal regulatory oversight.”

The WOTUS rules are designed to protect rivers, streams and other waterways, but recently, the Obama Administration has expanded that to include all wetlands that feed into rivers, outraging many farmers.

Duarte had insisted he did nothing wrong and his plowing activities caused no harm to the wetlands on the Tehama property.

The settlement forbids Duarte from dredging or farming the 44 acres that had been disturbed, with the exception of “moderate non-irrigated cattle grazing,” for 10 years. In addition to the $330,000 fine, Duarte will spend $770,000 on “compensatory mitigation,” such as purchasing wetlands credits. The money will be spent restoring wetlands on Sacramento Valley properties other than his.