As the megadrought bakes California, leaving parched lake beds and aggressive water restrictions in its wake, the state’s creeks and wetlands are more fragile, and vital, than ever. Punishments handed down to landowners who damage that delicate environment are now matching that seriousness. 

A Bay Area winery executive is facing a multi-million dollar state fine for allegedly removing trees and destroying a small wetland on a rural patch of land east of Cloverdale in Sonoma County.

Hugh Reimers and Krasilsa Pacific Farms could be on the hook for up to $3.75 million in fines for allegedly cutting down trees, grading, ripping and other activities near tributaries to Little Sulphur Creek, Big Sulphur Creek and Crocker Creek in the Russian River watershed, according to the state water board.

In a complaint filed May 9, the the board accused Reimers and Krasilsa Pacific Farms of failing to abide by a 2019 cleanup and abatement order, which required them to restore the streams and wetlands. The initial complaint was filed after two hunters “came upon a bulldozer operator clearing and bulldozing steep hillsides,” according to the water board’s report. “Additional information submitted by the hunters indicated up to 150 acres had been deep ripped.” 

Industry publication Wine Business reported last year that a 2,258-acre Cloverdale ranch on the property in question at 29810 River Road was previously listed for $10 million. Its Sotheby’s blurb stated that around 150 acres of “prime mountain cabernet vines” could be planted at 1,600 feet elevation. The ranch is no longer listed, as the listing agents told the publication that most of it cannot be sold until the issues are resolved. 

“The actions of the dischargers caused the destruction and degradation of state waters in violation of California law,” said Joshua Curtis, North Coast Water Board assistant executive officer.

The damage from work on the property still threatens fish and other aquatic species in the area, according to the water board.

“Their resistance to restoring those waters caused a loss of natural resources that would otherwise benefit the public, and the proposed fine shows there is a cost for failing to comply with regulations that protect the environment,” Curtis said in a news release Tuesday.

The board will hold a public hearing sometime in the first week of August to vote on whether to approve the proposed fine.

“I was pleased to see this today,” said Anna Ransome of Friends of Atascadero Wetlands, a local environmental group that has worked for several years to bring attention to the issue. “We really hope this sends a message to other people with the same idea that there are serious consequences to doing this kind of unpermitted work.”