The state attorney general’s office filed a pair of court cases last week against a rural Eau Claire County farmer for filling in wetlands on his property along Rock Creek.
After three years of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource efforts to get Robert Knutson to voluntarily remove sand and soil he added to 5.3 acres of wetlands, assistant attorney general Emily Ertel filed two lawsuits on May 2 in Eau Claire County Court.
Knutson is accused of violating Wisconsin laws prohibiting unauthorized discharge into wetlands going back to 2009 and for changing the course of a stream without a permit, offenses that can carry large fines.
His attorney, Dan Gustafson of Eau Claire, intends to file for a stay in the legal proceedings that would allow Knutson to proceed with a plan to remove the fill material and restore the wetlands by the end of this year.
“The case is not going to proceed to litigation,” Gustafson said Wednesday.
He’s confident the voluntary restoration efforts will get done this year, thereby resolving the case without the need for fines or other penalties.
According to the complaint in the case, a DNR warden visited Knutson’s town of Drammen property in 2016 after receiving an anonymous complaint and began an investigation. Using aerial photos and soil sampling, the investigation determined the former wetlands had been raised 1½ to 2½ feet in most places, as early as 2008.
Knutson told the warden that he had used his own heavy equipment to fill the wetlands with a combination of native soil and trucked-in sand because the muddy land caused problems for his cattle. Some of his cows would get stuck in the mud near the creek and had heart attacks as they struggled to get free, he told the warden.
Knutson said he didn’t get a permit to do the work and anticipated he would receive a fine, but the DNR first tried to get him to remove the fill material and restore the wetlands.
He had signed an agreement in August 2017 to do the work, but then asked for the document back from the DNR after hiring Gustafson.
Officials from the DNR, state Department of Justice and county government met with Knutson and Gustafson in April 2018.
Knutson then had consultant Santec come up with a plan for him to have part of the wetlands repaired by Oct. 30. A late November inspection of his property determined no work had been done.
However, Gustafson said Knutson made some progress last fall, but less than planned due to limitations caused by the growing season and weather.
The state is seeking an injunction forcing Knutson to remove the added material and restore the wetlands. Fines against him — an amount is not specified in the complaint — also are sought as well as attorney and court costs.
A 2012 law set fines of $100 to $10,000 for unauthorized discharge, and the state Legislature established in late 2013 that every day that law is broken can be considered an additional offense.
The two lawsuits were filed as complex forfeitures — a civil action the state takes in cases involving environmental damage, consumer protection or other public interest issues.
Wetlands are necessary for managing stormwater and floodwater, protecting groundwater and shorelines, and for animal habitat. Eliminating the wetland on Knutson’s property has cut the land’s ability to store groundwater, cut diversity of animal and plant species, and eliminated habitat for amphibians and reptiles, according to the complaint signed by Ertel.