The owners of Alexandre Family Farm are working to address a notice of violation from the regional water quality board over ditch excavation near Morrison Creek in Smith River.
Blake and Stephanie Alexandre, owners of Alexandre Family Farm, also known as Alexandre Ranches LLC, received a notice of violation on May 31, 2018, after a California Department of Fish and Wildlife staff member on Dec. 19, 2017 observed piles of soil on land bounded by South Fred Haight Drive to the east and Morrison Creek to the south and west.
According to the notice of violation, CDFW Game Warden Ted Pinnow sent photographs taken on Dec. 29, 2017, to regional water board staff, “which show ditch excavation work and turbid water discharges from the ditch into Morrison Creek.”
During a Feb. 21, 2018, site inspection, regional water board staff observed a roughly 2,555 linear-foot ditch excavated in wetlands, turbid water discharging from the ditch into Morrison Creek and recently excavated piles of soil and sidecast soil in wetlands, according to the notice of violation.
“Neither California Water Code waste discharge requirements nor Clean Water Act section 401 water quality certifications were issued by the Regional Water Board for these activities,” the notice reads.
The Regional Water Board ordered the Alexandres to submit a technical report by July 31, 2018, that includes a wetland hydrology analysis to determine “likely changes to Morrison Creek and the adjacent wetlands” as a result of the excavation; a timeline of the ditch excavation work; estimates of the discharge and soil excavation volumes; a spoil stabilization and management plan; and a long-term habitat protection management plan.
Though the Regional Water Board could impose fines in connection with the notice of violation, it has imposed no civil liabilities in connection with the Alexandres’ actions described in the May 31, 2018 notice, Cherie Blatt, water resource control engineer, told the Triplicate in an email Monday.
The Alexandres submitted a soil stabilization and management plan, a long-term habitat protection management strategy work plan and wetland hydrology information on July 30, 2018, Blatt told the Triplicate. However, the water board sent the Alexandres a letter on Sept. 27 requesting additional information because the hydrology analysis was inadequate, Blatt said.
Describing the notice of violation as a dilemma, Blake Alexandre said his son, Christian Alexandre, used an excavator to remove excess sediment and other debris that had been blocking the drainage ditch that ties into Morrison Creek. Blake Alexandre said he and his employees have cleaned the drainage ditch about three or four times in the last roughly 20 years and have sloped the fields they own in such a way as to prevent standing water.
“Connecting the drainage to Morrison Creek in a larger-than-they-expected fashion is what makes it illegal,” Blake Alexandre said. “And then you’ve got the fresh sediments and whatever silts then would get into Morrison Creek.”
Blake Alexandre said because the field was no longer draining, wetland grasses began taking over during the summer of 2017. He said his daughter had tried to clip the field with a tractor in September and kept getting stuck in the heavy clay soil because it was “still mucky wet from winter.”
Blake Alexandre said he asked Christian Alexandre to use their excavator to “muck it out.”
The day the CDFW staff person observed the soil piles and turbid water draining from the ditch into the creek was during one of the first storms of the season, which made the pasture waterlogged and muddy, Christian Alexandre said.
At about the same time the CDFW staffer was in the area, Alexandre Farm was forced to house some heifers on the pasture near the creek, Blake Alexandre said. Alexandre said the CDFW staffer didn’t tell him he was there and said if the staffer had talked to him “it would have solved everything.”
“They were in here for two weeks. He happens to catch it during that two weeks, so now he’s seeing cattle walking through this muddy mess, the grass was extra super low, so it’s kind of super ugly,” Blake Alexandre said of the heifers. “It’s just terrible timing. A lot of circumstances are adding up here — some bad luck.”
According to a March 8, 2018 site inspection report prepared by Blatt and Environmental Scientist Brendan Thompson, continuous sediment discharge to Morrison Creek has been present since the ditch connected with the creek. Soil fill has been placed in low areas of the pasture that is likely federal and state-jurisdictional wetlands, according to the report, and the bed and bank of the creek has been altered without a Clean Water Act section 401/404 permit.
“The newly excavated ditch provides habitat for the northern red-legged frog and likely habitat for endangered coho salmon juveniles,” the site inspection report reads.
Blake Alexandre said he doesn’t agree that he should have to get a permit to clear the drainage ditch, noting that Del Norte County doesn’t need a permit to keep its ditch clean and his neighbors don’t need permits to clean their ditches.
Blake Alexandre said Tuesday he and Christian Alexandre, submitted a seven-step mitigation plan to the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board addressing their concerns.
According to Christian Alexandre, the plan included moving the sediment out of the ditch and creating a gentle slope and contouring the banks of the ditch, making it more of a pond. Christian Alexandre said they would add grass for ducks and “beautify it.”
Christian Alexandre said the Regional Water Board rejected his plan and told them to rewrite it.
Blake Alexandre said the Regional Water Board didn’t provide any clarity as to what they needed to re-write.
“They didn’t say your plan’s wrong, they just said we’re not sure,” Blake Alexandre said. “Which tells me there’s deeper politics here and that’s frustrating.”
When asked if he responded to the Regional Water Quality Board’s Sept. 27 letter, Alexandre said Friday that he read through and probably signed a response, but “I don’t know what we said or did.”
Blake Alexandre said he and Christian Alexandre hauled the dirt away and are in the process of “attempting to do this, this and that, we’re just not sure if everything has been asked for or not.”
“I still want to farm the field, but I didn’t this year just to be polite,” he said. “We’re really not sure they’re done weighing in.”
Reach Jessica Cejnar at email@example.com .