A Stanislaus County landowner faces a $405,000 fine because he let too much sediment spill into the Tuolumne River, say water quality regulators.
The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board issued a complaint last week against Mike Kooyman, who owns a 1,000-acre almond orchard on the southeastern edge of Stanislaus County, just west of Snelling in Merced County.
The water board says Kooyman failed to control erosion on his land and allowed soil to build up in Peaslee Creek and the Tuolumne River.
The six-figure penalty comes after a year of warnings from the water board. It could be the largest fine ever issued for irrigated agricultural land, said Joe Karkoski, acting assistant executive officer of the water board.
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"I'm not aware of any other fine we've issued to irrigated ag land that's larger," Karkoski said.
Kooyman could not be reached for comment. Kooyman can either pay the fine, plead his case at a hearing before the water board in January or negotiate a settlement.
Pasture until 2007
The property was used as dry-land pasture until 2007, when it was graded to prepare for planting almonds, according to the water board complaint.
Regulators say finely textured soil drifted from the hilly orchard and muddied the Tuolumne River. The river is home to steelhead trout and Chinook salmon. When too much sediment collects, the fish can't spawn, Karkoski said.
Officials first became aware of the problem in January 2008. Staff for Turlock Irrigation District spotted "sediment-laden" water flowing from Peaslee Creek into the river. In March 2008, the water board issued a cleanup and abatement order.
In response, Kooyman came up with an erosion-control plan. The property owner said he would replace a dam that had failed, manually remove silt from Peaslee Creek, grow grass between orchard trees and make other improvements.
The water board says those measures didn't work. Inspections found that the dam failed and sediment was still being discharged into the river.
"It's not that there was absolutely nothing done, but what was done was inadequate," Karkoski said.
Fish being harmed
Water board staff inspected the area in May 2009 and found that sediment was harming fish and other aquatic critters in Peaslee Creek and the Tuolumne River.
"We don't take fining dischargers lightly," Karkoski said. "Our goal isn't to fine people; our goal is to get compliance with water quality objectives. We try to do that with the least amount of enforcement as possible."
Kooyman also owns a 2,843-acre piece of land roughly 10 miles to the west. In 2006, the Stanislaus County Planning Commission approved a controversial plan to split the land into 40-acre parcels. The parcel split opened the door to residential development, but the land is still planted in almonds, said county Deputy Planning Director Angela Freitas.