Almond grower to pay hefty price for vernal pool destruction

An Oakdale man who destroyed nearly 33 acres of vernal pools while converting grazing land to an almond orchard north of Merced has agreed to pay a $160,000 fine, plus buy a conservation easement valued at $1 million, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had warned Ed Brown to get a ground-working permit when he leased 850 acres at 7450 G St., west of Lake Yosemite, in August 2012, a settlement says. A couple of weeks later, tractors spent at least 10 days “deep ripping” 380 acres, or dragging six-foot metal shanks through soil to prepare it for tree planting, the document says.

The earthmoving stopped when the Army Corps and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife confronted Brown on Sept. 12 and 13, 2012, the deal says, but the vernal pools already had been “filled and obliterated,” the document says.

Brown previously owned California Healthy Harvest, a fruit and nut company with addresses in Modesto and Empire. He also owns rural land between Oakdale and Waterford, according to public documents.

“No comment,” he said on the telephone Tuesday. “I want to farm. That’s all I want to do.”

The notice says Brown is required to buy 94 acres elsewhere in Merced County, including 40 acres of high-quality vernal pool habitat that forever will be protected by a conservation easement. The land is part of a 7,350-acre cattle ranch owned by EKR Ranches Foundation, valued for dwindling grasslands that used to be common in the Valley. Development has wiped out all but 10 percent of such habitat, the EPA says.

Vernal pools are home to endangered tadpoles and fairy shrimp eaten by birds. The wetlands trap rainwater and produce wildflowers in the spring.

“California’s vernal pools are key to the survival of native plants and animals found nowhere else on the planet,” said the EPA’s Jared Blumenfeld in Tuesday’s news release. Protecting the resource from “irreversible destruction” is especially important during drought, he said.

The pools Brown destroyed are next to Parkinson Creek, which bisects the ranch and flows to Fahrens Creek, Black Rascal Creek and Bear Creek before joining the San Joaquin River. The federal Clean Water Act prohibits pollutants such as rock and dirt from contaminating such waterways and allows fines up to $16,000 per day, meaning Brown will pay the maximum under the deal he signed Oct. 29.

People can comment on the proposed penalty by Dec. 18 by emailing r9hearingclerk@epa.gov or sending mail to Steven Armsey, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region IX, 75 Hawthorne St., San Francisco, CA 94105.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390. Bee information specialist Karen Aiello contributed to this report.

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