More than 200 Republican members of Congress introduced legislation last week to strike down a Biden administration rule restoring long-standing federal protections for hundreds of thousands of streams and wetlands across the country — safeguards that the Trump administration dismantled in 2020.
Among the co-sponsors of the House resolution is Rep. John Duarte (R-Calif.), who in 2017 paid $1.1 million in fines for illegally plowing 22 acres of federally protected streams and wetlands on his farm. The settlement followed a yearslong legal battle that started when Duarte hired a contractor to “rip,” or deep till, his entire 450-acre property before planting wheat, including areas with federally protected waters.
The case garnered national attention, and Duarte emerged as a sort of hero among anti-environmental zealots, agricultural interests and private property rights groups. Another GOP member of California’s delegation even pointed to the case in a press release announcing himself as a co-sponsor of the new House resolution targeting the Biden administration’s new regulations.
“President Biden’s expanded [Waters of the United States] rule is a huge land and water grab that gives the federal government overreaching authority on virtually any private property in the nation, placing homeowners, famers (sic), and small businesses under the thumb of EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) bureaucrats,” Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.), a fourth-generation rice farmer, said in the press release.
LaMalfa highlighted three California landowners who he argues fell victim to “absurd” Obama-era clean water regulations. At the top of his list was Duarte — though instead of identifying Duarte as a sitting member of Congress and a co-sponsor of the resolution, LaMalfa described his colleague as simply a “farmer.”
“In February 2013, with no warning or opportunity to discuss the matter, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers sent Tehama County farmer John Duarte a cease-and-desist letter to suspend farming operations, claiming that he had illegally filled wetlands on his wheat field by merely plowing it,” reads LaMalfa’s press release, which borrows language from a piece in California Ag Today, a product of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. “Duarte was forced to spend millions to defend himself and protect himself from financial and personal ruin, and settled the case in August of 2017 at great cost.”
In 2020, the Trump administration stripped away longstanding federal protections and replaced President Barack Obama’s 2015 Waters of the U.S. regulation, better known as WOTUS, which had extended said federal protections to 2 million miles of streams and 20 million acres of wetlands, and became a magnet for litigation. A federal judge struck down the Trump rule in 2021. And in late December, the Biden administration finalized its own WOTUS rules, which largely restores protections that were in place for decades prior to the Obama administration’s controversial changes. Biden officials have said that the Trump-era rule resulted in “significant environmental degradation.”
Duarte supported the Trump administration’s industry friendly rollback and condemned Biden’s latest action, arguing it would “put undue pressure on small businesses & local communities in the Valley.”
Duarte co-owns Duarte Nursery in California’s Central Valley. The company specializes in almonds, pistachios, walnuts and wine grapes, and boasts of being “one of the world’s largest permanent crop nurseries.” He and the company initially faced a $2.8 million fine for illegally ripping federally protected waters on the property, but ultimately reached a settlement agreement with the Justice Department that included $1.1 million in civil penalties and mitigation costs. In a press release announcing the deal, the Department of Justice under President Donald Trump noted that “Duarte’s own environmental consultant had warned him that he would be subject to significant penalties for ripping without a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers.”
The Pacific Legal Foundation, a right-wing law firm with a long record of fighting to weaken environmental safeguards, represented Duarte in the case.
Duarte’s office did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment. But in a recent interview with Fox News, the freshman congressman called his own experience financially “devastating” and the Obama-era WOTUS regulation “misguided” and “a fiasco” for farmers.
“It’s a complete example of government overreach,” he told Fox.
Duarte earns an annual salary of more than $700,000 from his company, according to a financial disclosure that is required of all congressional candidates.
Along with co-sponsoring the resolution to block Biden’s new rules, Duarte landed himself a seat on two House committees with jurisdiction over natural resources and environmental agencies: the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the House Natural Resources Committee. His record of sparring with the federal government over stricter clean water rules all but certainly factored into his committee assignments.
On Wednesday, Republicans on the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, which is part of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, held a hearing titled “Stakeholder Perspectives on the Impacts of the Biden Administration’s Water of the United States (WOTUS) Rule.” Their witnesses, including Garrett Hawkins, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, and Alicia Huey, chair of the National Association of Home Builders, called on the Biden administration to set its new rules until the Supreme Court rules in Sackett v. EPA later this year, a case that will decide EPA’s authority to regulate wetlands under the Clean Water Act.
Duarte spent his allotted five minutes during the hearing rehashing his case — “a flashpoint for American farmers and Clean Water Act jurisdictions,” he called it — and portraying himself a victim of a heavy-handed federgovernment.
“We all should look at my case very acutely and reflect upon our food system here in America,” Duarte said. “I want to make sure that we are on record that this is anything but a small nuisance or a small threat to American farmers.”
Hawkins, of the Missouri Farm Bureau, thanked Duarte for his “leadership” and “example” over the years, and called his story “an illustration of what we’ve seen across the country.”
Clean water advocates dismissed the idea that federal regulators treated Duarte unfairly.
“It’s disingenuous to paint Rep. John Duarte as a victim when the record is clear that he knowingly broke the law when he decided to destroy wetlands and streams on his property without a permit,” Jennifer Peters, water programs director at Clean Water Action, told HuffPost.
As for Biden’s new rules, she and Jon Devine, director of federal water policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, say they are anything but burdensome. And they condemned the GOP’s effort to repeal them.
“This attempt to cancel very modest clean water regulations is a waste of time and its supporters aren’t being honest about the law,” Devine said. “The Biden administration’s rules are built on, and closely resemble, policies that have been in place since the G.W. Bush administration, so even in the unimaginable scenario where this resolution is enacted, we’d simply revert back to virtually identical guidelines.”
“In reality our government needs to be doing much more to protect our water bodies, half of which are considered too polluted for fishing or swimming,” Peters said.