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Northern California farmer who plowed wetlands is fined $1.1 million

Modesto grower John Duarte is suing the federal government he was ordered to stop cultivating his fa
The government says John Duarte destroyed wetlands, in violation of the Clean Water Act, when he cultivated his family’s 450-acre field in Red Bluff, Calif.
(Robin Abcarian / Los Angeles Times)

A California farmer will pay $1.1 million for plowing federally protected wetlands and streams, the U.S. Justice Department said Tuesday, closing a years-long legal battle that made him a rallying figure for critics of environmental regulation.

The government announced the consent decree for John Duarte, who owns land and a nursery in the Northern California town of Red Bluff. The settlement with federal authorities, who had been due to start the penalty phase in Duarte’s legal case Tuesday, includes civil penalties and money to restore wetlands and streams.

The case began after Duarte bought fallow land within federally protected wetlands and streams in 2012, and paid a contractor to deep till it, or rip it. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cited Duarte. A federal court found against Duarte last year, saying the wetlands that Duarte tilled hadn’t been plowed for at least 24 years.

Duarte’s lawyers argued that he was simply a farmer plowing a wheat field, and they said the seasonal wetlands survived the tilling.

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The California farmer’s case had been spotlighted by farm groups, including those concerned about what had been an Obama administration project to more clearly define what wetlands and waterways fall under the protection of existing clean-water laws. The American Farm Bureau Federation lauded Duarte for standing up to federal environmental regulators.

Duarte’s attorneys said in a statement that federal prosecutors would have sought tens of millions of dollars from Duarte during the penalty phase of the legal case.

The consent decree still requires court approval.


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