The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a settlement with Edward Lynn Brown, a canned food and nut wholesaler in Modesto, Calif., for destroying nearly 33 acres of wetlands, known as vernal pools, north of Merced, Calif. The settlement requires Brown to pay a $160,000 penalty and purchase and endow a conservation easement valued at $1 million.
“California's vernal pools are key to the survival of native plants and animals found nowhere else on the planet,” said Jared Blumenfeld, EPA’s Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest. “In a time of drought and climate change, it is more important than ever to protect these endangered habitats from irreversible destruction.”
In August 2012, Brown leased 850 acres in Merced County intending to convert the land from a cattle grazing operation into an almond orchard. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers informed him that the property contained protected vernal pools and instructed him to apply for a federal Clean Water Act permit before altering the land. Without applying for a permit, in early September 2012 Brown “deep ripped” the ground with mechanized equipment, destroying 32.7 acres of vernal pools.
In addition to the penalty, Brown is required to off-set the loss of the vernal pools by purchasing a 94-acre conservation easement with 40 acres of high-quality vernal pool habitat in Merced County. He must endow a land trust to maintain and monitor the easement in perpetuity. The easement and endowment are expected to cost approximately $1 million. The easement is part of a 7,350-acre cattle ranch owned by the EKR Ranches Foundation, valued for its significant vernal pool and grassland habitats.
Vernal pools occur in shallow swales and depressions with an underlying layer of impermeable subsoil, which fill with water during the rainy season. They look barren during the summer and fall, but after winter rain they are home to endangered tadpole and fairy shrimp that are critical food sources for native and migratory birds. In the spring the vernal pools bloom with uniquely adapted wetland plants creating rings of wildflowers at the pools' edges as the water recedes. Vernal pools and other wetlands help maintain water quality by removing pollutants that may enter the pools from agricultural and urban sources.
California is one of the few places in the world where vernal pool ecosystems are found. Once common in the Central Valley, less than 10 percent of California’s original vernal pools persist today, as a result of agricultural and urban development. Sustainable ranching practices can support sensitive vernal pool landscapes by controlling invasive species, reducing fire hazards, and promoting biodiversity.
The proposed penalty is subject to a 30-day public comment period. The settlement and public comment information are available at: http://www.epa.gov/region9/enforcement/pubnotices/pubnotice-merced-ranch.html