A California farmer is facing a $2.8 million fine and a trial in federal court this summer for failing to get a permit to plow his own field. John Duarte, of Duarte Nursery, bought 450 acres of land near Modesto in 2012, where he planned to grow wheat. While his wheat was planted, it was never 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. Both agencies argue that Duarte violated the Clean Water Act by not obtaining a permit to discharge dredged or fill material into seasonal wetlands considered waters of the United State. 

Duarte initially hired a consulting firm to map out areas on the property that were not to be plowed because they were part of drainage for Coyote and Oat creeks, in addition to be considering “Waters of the United States.” While he concedes that some of the wetlands were plowed, he argues it was only to a depth of 4 to 7 inches, the wetlands were not significantly damaged, and he did not violate the Endangered Species Act. Additionally, his attorney argues that farmers plowing their fields are specifically exempt from the Clean Water Act rules forbidding discharging material into the U.S. Waters. On the other hand, the U.S. Attorney’s Office argues that the tractor was not plowing the field and it was equipped with a ripper that had seven 36-inch shanks, which they say dug an average of 10 inches into the soil.

Duarte’s attorney said this case is significant, as it may set precedent requiring other farmers to obtain costly, time-consuming permits just to plow and plan crops. U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller has already agreed with the Army Corps in a judgment issued in June. However, the trial set for August is when the U.S. Attorney’s Office is seeking $2.8 million in civil penalties. In addition to the civil penalties, the U.S. Attorney’s office is also asking the judge to order Duarte to repair the damage to the wetlands. He also may be required to purchase other wetlands to compensate for the alleged damage. Duarte’s attorneys argue that the proposed penalties are unfair and that a plain reading of the rules allows Duarte’s actions.