A US Rep Is Trying to Undo Clean Water Laws That He Violated

In 2017, before he was a lawmaker, John Duarte was fined $1.1 million by federal regulators for disturbing wetlands on land owned by his business. Now, as a US representative, he is pushing legislation that would roll back the law he broke.

California Republican representative John Duarte leaves a meeting of the House Republican Conference at the Capitol Hill Club on January 30, 2024. (Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

After being sanctioned by federal regulators for plowing up protected wetlands on his California farm, a US lawmaker is now spearheading an effort to roll back federal water protections — including the very same provisions that he once paid penalties for violating.

If the scheme is successful, environmental groups say industrial polluters could more freely contaminate wetlands, rivers, and other waters, harming both the nation’s water resources and the communities depending on them. It could also benefit the lawmaker spearheading the attack, since he still owns the farm where he was found to be destroying wetlands.

In 2017, before he was a lawmaker, Republican California representative John Duarte was fined $1.1 million by federal regulators for disturbing wetlands and streams on a five-hundred-acre plot of land owned by his business, Duarte Nursery. The settlement ended a long and public legal battle between Duarte and environmental authorities over violations of the Clean Water Act, the landmark 1972 legislation that protects the nation’s rivers, wetlands, and other bodies of water.

That same year, Duarte Nursery paid an outside firm $30,000 to lobby on “issues relating to the Clean Water Act,” according to federal disclosures.

Since taking office last year, Duarte, who sits on a key House committee that oversees water policy, has become a vocal supporter of efforts to roll back clean water standards and other environmental protections, including a 2023 attempt by Republican lawmakers to redefine what bodies of water are federally protected.

But Duarte’s latest effort — a bill he has spearheaded called the Creating Confidence in Clean Water Permitting Act, which passed the House of Representatives on March 21 — goes further and deals directly with the provisions he and his company fought in court for years.

And since Duarte has remained a co-owner of Duarte Nursery, he could potentially benefit from the rollbacks. In May 2023, Duarte reported earning a salary of $783,000 from the company.

The proposal, part of a January package of conservative bills that take aim at the Clean Water Act, specifically weakens oversight of so-called dredge-and-fill permits — the same type of permit that Duarte was sanctioned over by regulators in 2017. The effort follows the devastating decision by the US Supreme Court in Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency last year, which decimated long-standing protections for the country’s wetlands.

In a letter to lawmakers signed by more than forty different environmental groups, which we obtained, environmental advocates warned that Duarte’s bill would “prevent effective judicial review of projects that fill in and destroy wetlands, streams, and other waters.”

“Rep. Duarte has long been pushing for weaker protections to clean water,” said Julian Gonzalez, senior legislative counsel and lead water policy lobbyist at Earthjustice, an environmental advocacy group. Gonzalez called Duarte’s new bill a “wish list for industry deregulation of federal water protections.”

Duarte’s office did not respond to our requests for comment. Speaking in support of the proposal in March, Duarte said the law would provide “relief to farmers, small businesses, and energy producers” and “shield permit holders from activist lawsuits.”

“A Who’s Who of Large Polluters”

Duarte’s plant nursery is based in California’s Central Valley, growing almonds, pistachios, and grapes. The company employs hundreds of people and claims that it’s one of the largest plant nurseries in the country.

In 2013, years before Duarte was a lawmaker, the US Army Corps of Engineers sent his company a cease-and-desist order, alleging that it had plowed wetlands on a plot of land in rural Northern California, introducing pollutants and violating the Clean Water Act. The wetlands on his property, the government said, fed into tributaries of the Sacramento River, and disturbing the waters required a dredge-and-fill permit from the Corps of Engineers, which Duarte did not obtain.

Duarte then sued the Corps of Engineers over the cease-and-desist order, and the government countersued, initially asking for $2.8 million in sanctions. Eventually, Duarte settled with the Department of Justice for less than half that amount — but not before painting himself in the press as a persecuted farmer, boosting his political profile.

“He tries to come off as somebody who is a business owner and a farmer, who just has a family farm,” Gonzalez said, calling this act “disingenuous.”

“Most small farmers — they’re not millionaires,” said Gonzalez. “They don’t have five hundred acres, and they certainly don’t have a million dollars to spare as the cost of doing business while violating the Clean Water Act.”

Back in 2013, Duarte needed a permit under section 404 of the act in order to plow the wetlands on his property, which governs “fill” materials in waters and wetlands. These permits are required if a developer wants to fill a wetland with gravel to build on it, for example, or make an artificial island in a body of water.

In January 2024, Duarte introduced a bill called the Confidence in Clean Water Permits Act, which was later combined with legislation introduced by Republican North Carolina representative David Rouzer. Both sit on the Transportation Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, which oversees water pollution and conservation issues. Rouzer serves as the subcommittee chair.

Their final bill, the Creating Confidence in Clean Water Permitting Act, proposes narrowing the statute of limitations for review of dredge-and-fill permits, among other measures. It also would limit how and when courts can intervene to rescind the permits if they are found to violate the Clean Water Act.

The bill weakens the Clean Water Act in a number of other ways, environmental advocates say. It revokes the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to intervene to stop large-scale polluting operations. And it rewrites permitting rules that experts say would shield polluters from liability for dumping chemical contaminants in water if environmental regulators had not expressly barred them from doing so.

“We think it is highly likely that this law will suddenly make it legal for companies to dump all kinds of PFAS [per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, toxic ‘forever chemicals’] into the water instead of giving communities and state agencies a tool to protect the public from that kind of pollution,” said John Rumpler, the clean water director at Environment America, an environmental advocacy group. It would turn the landscape of water protections into “a wild west of ‘catch me if you can,’” he said.

“This partisan bill weakens clean water protections while providing exemptions, legal shields, and limited oversight to special interests, polluters, and large-scale projects that demand higher scrutiny,” Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) said on the House floor in March, speaking in opposition to the bill. The legislation “guts the independent authority” of both the US Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA, she said.

Private interest groups have lined up behind Duarte’s bill. The Independent Petroleum Association of America, a Big Oil lobbying group, and several natural gas industry groups have come out in support of the legislation. So have the Associated Builders and Contractors, a construction industry group, and the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association.

This amounted to a “who’s who of large polluters and developers,” Gonzalez said.

The bill has attracted particular support from offshore energy interests, which would benefit from weakened oversight of industrial polluters. The National Ocean Industries Association, a trade group representing offshore oil and gas companies, noted that the bill would “provide critical regulatory certainty for businesses operating under Clean Water Act permits in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Rollbacks to Water Protections

Rouzer and Duarte’s bill passed the House on March 21 in a partisan vote. It now heads to the Democrat-controlled Senate, where it likely faces a slim chance of passing as is. Still, as Gonzalez noted, the bill is just one part of a broader push to roll back water protections. And in this area, Duarte and his industry backers have already secured significant victories.

“[The bill] comes on the heels of a devastating Supreme Court decision that eviscerated protections for America’s remaining wetlands,” Rumpler said.

Last May, the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Sackett v. EPA rewrote long-standing protections in the Clean Water Act. Harlan Crow, Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas’ billionaire benefactor, and his business interests were involved in the Sackett case. Trade groups with close ties to Crow’s companies pushed the high court to rule against the EPA, we reported last year.

In Sackett, the court ruled that, contrary to decades of environmental protections, only wetlands that are directly connected to larger bodies of water are protected under the Clean Water Act, decimating federal protections for an estimated 118 acres of fragile wetlands and marshes.

The plaintiffs in that case — a couple in Idaho — were represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, the same conservative legal group that took on Duarte’s case back in 2014. At issue in the Sackett case was the same kind of dredge-and-fill permit that Duarte has fought against in Congress and on his own land.

“Over half of the wetlands in the country lost federal protections from the EPA [as a result of Sackett],” Gonzalez said. “The reason this was a big target for industry was because they want to be able to develop wetlands, to fill them, and to build homes, build industry without dealing with EPA.”

Now, he said, Duarte and other conservatives in Congress are carrying on that mission.