EPA Sues Idaho Ranch on CWA Violations

Idaho Ranch Family Contends Work Done on Land Not Clean Water Act Violations

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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Ace Black Ranches in Bruneau, Idaho, has been sued by the EPA for allegedly violating the Clean Water Act. (Screenshot with permission Idaho Farm Bureau)

LINCOLN, Neb. (DTN) -- An Idaho ranch family has been charged with Clean Water Act violations in connection with the installation of center pivots and other work conducted on their 800-acre operation in southwest Idaho.

The EPA filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho on Tuesday, alleging Ace Black Ranches in Bruneau, Idaho, made several alterations to the Bruneau River and surrounding wetlands as part of a sand and gravel operation.

The agency alleges the ranch has been conducting the work without a Clean Water Act dredge and fill permit.

The family that operates the ranch told DTN it believes the wetlands in question on their property are not jurisdictional wetlands.

"Defendant constructed multiple road crossings in the Bruneau River and wetlands," EPA said in the lawsuit. "These roads disrupt and impede the flow of water in the river and wetlands. The roads have washed away on multiple occasions, further polluting and disrupting the river. Defendant mined sand and gravel from the river, disturbing the riverbed and its banks and discharging pollutants. Defendant placed sand, gravel, rocks and debris on the banks of the river, which alter and pollute the river."

EPA said in the complaint that the ranch operated by Terry and Telby Black used "heavy machinery" to "clear and level" dozens of acres of wetlands to install roads and center-pivot irrigation systems.

The complaint alleges pollution discharges occurred not only on the ranch but on neighboring parcels of privately owned and state-owned land including a portion of the nearby C.J. Strike Wildlife Management Area.

The agency asked the court to order ranch owners to stop "unauthorized discharges" of pollutants and stormwater into the river and wetlands, and to require the landowners "at its own expense and the direction of EPA" to restore waters on the site and to obtain CWA permits.

When contacted by DTN, the Black family said in a statement that the allegations are untrue and they have been trying to cooperate with federal authorities from the outset.

"Ace Black Ranches is deeply disappointed by the actions taken by the Environmental Protection Agency in bringing this lawsuit," the ranch said in a statement.

"The claims are unfounded and we are confident that a fair examination of the law will vindicate our position. We will cooperate fully throughout this unnecessary process and defend our positions in the litigation to ensure a swift and just resolution. Ace Black Ranches' long-standing commitment to environmental stewardship is unwavering. EPA's misguided attempts to expand its jurisdiction and reach over agricultural farm and ranch activities are bound to fail, based on the facts and the law in this case."

Ace Black Ranches is a 150-year-old farm and ranch operation that lies on both sides of the Bruneau River. The family said the ranch has been irrigated since the 1870s, based on the decreed water rights the ranch holds from the state.

The family said Ace Black Ranches recently sought to improve the efficiency of its irrigation system and implement agricultural best management practices by converting from traditional flood irrigation to modern center-pivot sprinkler irrigation.

"EPA now claims that Ace Black Ranches' conversion to sprinkler irrigation destroyed jurisdictional wetlands on the ranch," the ranch said in the statement.

The Black family said they believe the work done on the land is exempt from the Clean Water Act as an agricultural practice.

"The collection and use of gravel on farms for things like pivot tracks and farm roads are common agricultural practices," the family said in a statement.

"Ace Black Ranches' lawful agricultural activities do not require a Clean Water Act permit and the EPA has no basis for its claims to the contrary."

SACKETT CASE CONNECTION

The Supreme Court recently ruled in Sackett v EPA that for wetlands to be jurisdictional, it requires a continuous surface connection between wetlands and navigable waters.

"The U.S. Supreme Court in the recent Idaho case of Sackett v. EPA has made clear that only wetlands with a continuous surface water connection to the river, such that the wetlands and the river are indistinguishable from one another, fall under the federal government's jurisdiction as 'waters of the United States,'" the family said.

"There is no such continuous surface water connection in this case and the alleged wetlands on the property are distinguishable from the river. There is no basis for the EPA's claim of jurisdiction over wetlands."

The complaint was filed after EPA officials investigated the ranch on a tip from a neighbor, first inspecting the land in 2021 and again in 2023.

RANCH FACES STIFF PENALTIES

David M. Uhlmann, assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, said in a news release the owners of the ranch did not try to comply with the Clean Water Act.

"EPA will hold companies accountable when they seek to profit from conducting illegal activities in American rivers and streams, destroying adjacent wetlands that protect those waters from pollution, and threatening fisheries, neighboring properties, and downstream communities," Uhlmann said.

According to the complaint EPA may pursue civil penalties of up to $66,712 per day per violation of the Clean Water Act.

The agency said in the lawsuit that ranch owners initially consented to join the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on a visit to inspect the ranch on May 18, 2021.

"But on the evening of May 17, 2021, defendant withdrew consent and filed a complaint and a motion for preliminary injunction in the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho seeking to prevent the agencies from entering the ranch," the complaint said.

That court action was dismissed in February 2022, according to the lawsuit. EPA obtained an administrative warrant in May 2021 and inspected the ranch for the first time from June 14-16, 2021. The agency conducted another inspection from April 24-28, 2023.

The lawsuit claims the ranch used equipment to clear, grade and fill portions of the ranch from 2017-21.

"Defendant's road construction activities did not follow best management practices, to assure that flow and circulation patterns and chemical and biological characteristics of the Bruneau River and adjacent wetlands were not impaired, that the reach of these waters was not reduced, and that any adverse effect on the aquatic environment was otherwise minimized," the lawsuit said.

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com.

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Todd Neeley

Todd Neeley
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