Rancher Wins Fight Against Federal Water Czars

Published June 3, 2016

Andy Johnson, a rancher in Fort Bridger, Wyoming fought the Federal government and won.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took Johnson to court, threatening him with $16 million in fines for building a stock pond on his small ranch. On May, 2016, the EPA reached a settlement with Johnson, approved by the court, allowing him to keep the pond without a federal permit or paying the hefty fine.

Before building the stock pond at issue in 2012, Johnson had obtained a state permit.

Shortly after construction, however, EPA threatened Johnson with civil and criminal penalties, including a $37,500-a-day fine, claiming he needed the agency’s permission before building the 40-by-300 foot pond filled by a natural stream. The EPA claimed jurisdiction over the pond under a broad interpretation of the Clean Water Act despite the fact the federal law clearly exempts stock ponds from the agencies rules. In court, EPA claimed the stock pond wasn’t in fact a stock pond, rather it said Johnson violated the Clean Water Act by building a dam on a creek without a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers and claimed material from his pond was being discharged into other waterways. The waterways in question being a drainage ditch use for agricultural purposes.

Johnson, a married father of four, said the EPA’s compliance order was very threatening. “I was shocked and devastated and I didn’t know what to do,” Johnson told Fox News. “I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I’m the only provider for my whole family. How can I fight this?'” Despite his fear, Johnson did decide to fight EPA.

‘Victory for Property Rights, the Environment and Common Sense’

“This is a victory for common sense and the environment, and it brings an end to all the uncertainty and fear that the Johnson family faced,” said Jonathan Wood, a staff attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation who represented Andy Johnson in his court challenge to the EPA, and in negotiating the settlement. 

“The EPA never identified any environmental problems with the pond,” Wood told Fox News. “In fact, it’s been a boom for the environment.” Wood notes, since 2012, the pond, while serving as a safe and easily accessible water supply for Johnson’s cattle and horses, has also become a home for various fish, including trout, and a regular stop for waterfowl and other wildlife.

Under the terms of the settlement, Johnson’s does not concede federal has any jurisdiction over the pond and the EPA agrees it will not pursue any further enforcement actions against Johnson for building the pond.  The only conditions EPA placed on Johnson are he willow trees around the pond and partially it to “control livestock,” which is ironic since EPA had steadfastly insisted the body of water was not, in fact, a stock pond.

The Supreme Court had previously ruled, the federal government can regulate waters only if they have a “significant nexus” to navigable waters. Since Johnson’s pond drains to a manmade irrigation ditch, where the water is used for agriculture, the EPA never should have had a say in the ponds construction.

‘Hope for Others’

Johnson told Fox News he hopes his legal case will give hope to others who might face similar battles in the future.

“This is a huge victory for us as well as private property owners across the country,” says Johnson. “The next family that finds itself in our situation, facing ominous threats from EPA, can take heart in knowing that many of these threats will not come to pass. If, like us, you stand up to the overreaching bureaucrats, they may very well back down.”

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., ([email protected]) is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.