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Science and Health:
Troubled Waters
More on This Story:
Deep Ripping and the Clean Water Act

Among other things, the Clean Water Act regulates the discharge of pollution into waters of the United States. In 1993, Angelo Tsakopoulos purchased Borden Ranch, an 8, 000-acre ranch located in California's Central Valley. Previously, the Ranch had been used for cattle grazing, and some growing of wheat, hay, alfalfa and row crops. In order to convert the land so that it was suitable for vineyards and orchards, Tsakopoulos utilized a farming technique called "deep ripping." By this process, a four-to-seven-foot metal shank is dragged through the soil, puncturing the subsurface layer, bringing soil, clay, and biological matter to the surface, allowing water to reach greater depths.

This process can damage the wetland swales, natural drainage ditches that criss-cross the Borden Ranch. Deep ripping cuts through the underground clay pans that keep the wetland water in place. As Dr. Joy Zedler of the University of Wisconsin explains, "It's like opening a wound in the soil, and it allows the wetland to bleed. You lose the water from the wetland; you lose nutrients; you lose other water chemistry; it's a wounded wetland that is not necessarily self-healing."

The Supreme Court was asked to decide whether the deep ripping of protected wetlands while farming was a violation of the Clean Water Act. In a 4-4 decision the Supreme Court upheld a federal district court's decision that found Tsakopoulos had committed 358 violations of the Clean Water Act and levied a $500,000 fine. Justice Anthony Kennedy a Tsakopoulos friend, abstained. The split decision leaves open the fundamental issue of the government's authority to stop farmers from altering wetlands on their own property.

To learn more about the case, browse these resources:

Legal Brief on Behalf of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers et al
The U.S. Department of Justice provides the text of a legal brief outlining the issues and arguments of the government against the rancher in this case.

Plowed Under
A National Review article details the case featured in layman's terms, with an emphasis the business interests of Mr. Tsakopoulos.

Summary Brief of the Opinion Issued by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals
The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University summarizes the appellate decision related to this case.

Supreme Court Docket Report
Appellate attorneys Mayer, Brown, Rowe, and Maw (also co-counsel to Mr. Tsakopoulos) provide a brief synopsis, including the circumstances of the case, its judicial history, related cases, and potential impact of the case.

Tie Affirms Clean Water Act's Reach
This Environmental Observatory article talks about the environmental impact of this case now after the Supreme Court's 4-4 decision.

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