Enforcement and Inspection

Costly Settlement Preserves Rare Wetlands

Settlement Preserves Rare Wetlands

In mid-August 2014, the EPA and the Department of Justice (DOJ) reached a settlement with the owners of a California ranch for violations of the CWA involving the destruction of more than 80 acres of rare wetlands in Tehama County.

According to the EPA, the wetlands, known as “vernal pool” wetlands “are home to native plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth.” The vernal pools are shallow depressions underlined by impermeable soils that hold water during the rainy season. While vernal pools are seasonal and appear barren during the summer and fall, winter rains bring them to life and they become home to different species. In this case the species include two endangered species of fairy shrimp, one threatened species of fairy shrimp, the endangered vernal pool tadpole shrimp, and native and migratory birds that feed on them. With spring, the vernal pools’ “uniquely adapted wetland plants” bloom around the pools’ edges as the water recedes.

Forget expensive calls to lawyers and consultants. With Enviro.BLR.com, you get instant access, 24/7. Try it out today and get the 2014 EHS Salary Guide, absolutely free. Download Now.

The vernal pools in California’s Central Valley were once common, however, during the 20th century more than 90 percent of their range was lost. In addition to their importance to plant and animal life, vernal pools also provide help moderating seasonal flooding and serve to remove water contaminants from urban runoff and agriculture.

In the Consent Decree, the EPA and DOJ alleged that from 2008 and 2010, the ranch owners “illegally deep-ripped 872 acres of the ranch to make room for more orchards.” According to the complaint, the “Deep-ripping and/or land leveling resulted in the placement of dredged spoil, biological materials, rock, sand, cellar dirt, and/or other earthen materials constituting ‘pollutants’ within the meaning of 33 U.S.C. 1362(6)” into streams and/or wetlands at the site.

Everything You Need for Environmental Compliance

Enviro.BLR.com puts everything you need at your fingertips, including practical RCRA, CAA, CWA, hazardous waste regulatory analysis and activity, news, and compliance tools. Try it at no cost or risk and get a FREE report.

In addition to the orchard expansion, the owners performed other activities including creating an 18-acre water-skiing lake and constructing berms and roads, each time using mechanized equipment and polluting streams and wetlands with earthen materials. In all cases cited in the complaint, mechanized equipment used during construction constituted a “point source” within the meaning of 33 U.S.C. 1362(14). Each of the violations cited in the complaint were performed without applying for, securing or complying with a required CWA Section 404 permit from the Army Corps of Engineers.

The activities resulted in the destruction of 80 acres of vernal pool wetlands and damaged two acres of Coyote Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento River that crossed the ranch where the wetlands and small seasonal streams were located.

In the settlement reached between the ranch owners and the government, the owners will pay $300,000 in civil penalties. In addition, to “off-set” the ecological losses associated with the destruction of the vernal pool wetlands and streams, the owners also agreed to provide $795,000 to The Nature Conservancy for use in preserving vernal pool and salmon habitats in the Sacramento watershed. This funding will also include the purchase of a conservation easement in the Foor Ranch, a 55-acre property that is both rich in vernal pool wetlands and connected to The Nature Conservancy’s Vina Plains preserve, a 4,600-acre vernal pool conservation area a few miles north of Chico.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.