Andy Johnson and his stock pond

Andy Johnson and his stock pond

Since 2014, I’ve followed the case of Wyoming Welder Andy Johnson, who, state permit in hand, built a small stock pond on his ten acres near Fort Bridger. Despite the law clearly exempting stock ponds, the EPA pursued him, and threatened Anderson with fines in the tens of millions of dollars if he did not destroy the stock pond he had a valid State of Wyoming permit to build.

Fort Bridger (red arrow) map credit:

Fort Bridger (red arrow)
map credit:

The first article, EPA Cockroaches v Wyoming Welder, was published in August of 2014, followed by EPA Cockroaches v Wyoming Welder, Part 2 in October of 2014, and EPA Cockroaches v Wyoming Welder, Part 3 in August of 2015.

Fortunately, the EPA has given up, but not without getting something to which it was not entitled. Fox News reports:

A Wyoming man threatened with $16 million in fines over the building of a stock pond reached a settlement with the Environment Protection Agency, allowing him to keep the pond without a federal permit or hefty fine. [skip]

Not long after construction, the EPA threatened Johnson with civil and criminal penalties – including the threat of a $37,500-a-day fine — claiming he needed the agency’s permission before building the 40-by-300 foot pond, which is filled by a natural stream.

The Johnson Spread with its environment threatening stock pond

The Johnson Spread with its environment threatening stock pond

Imagine yourself, gentle reader, in Johnson’s position. What would you do?

On Monday, lawyers representing Johnson announced that the federal government agreed to resolve the case and a federal court has approved.

Under the settlement, Johnson’s pond will remain and he won’t pay any fines or concede any federal jurisdiction to regulate the pond. And the government won’t pursue any further enforcement actions based on the pond’s construction.

The only conditions, according to Johnson’s lawyers, are that willow trees be planted around the pond and a partial fence installed to ‘control livestock.

Johnson’s attorneys were pleased:

This is a victory for common sense and the environment, and it brings an end to all the uncertainty and fear that the Johnson family faced,’ said Jonathan Wood, a staff attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation who represented Andy Johnson in his court challenge to the EPA, and in negotiating the settlement.

‘The EPA never identified any environmental problems with the pond,’ Wood told ‘In fact, it’s been a boom for the environment.’ [skip]

Wood said Tuesday that the EPA has a ‘broad interpretation’ of the Clean Water Act and noted that federal law clearly exempts stock ponds from the rules of the agency.

Translation of “broad interpretation:” making stuff up. So what was the EPA doing making demands on Johnson? It did it because under the Obama Administration, it is a law unto itself. It need not worry about such trifles as the law, the Constitution or Congress. Whatever it says, goes. Or so it thought…

Under Supreme Court precedent, the federal government can regulate waters only if they have a ‘significant nexus’ to navigable waters. Johnson’s pond drains to a manmade irrigation ditch, where the water is used for agriculture, according to the Pacific Legal Foundation.

The stock pond is fed by a small, absolutely non-navigable creek.

The only thing he has to do is plant willows around the pond and put in a partial fence to control livestock,’ Wood said. ‘The irony of this case is the government has insisted all along this isn’t a stock pond.’

Over the last four years, the pond has served as a safe and easily accessible water supply for his Angus steers and horses. It’s also become a natural home for various fish — including brook and brown trout — and a regular stop for waterfowl and moose.[skip]

Johnson is, as one might imagine, pleased:

This is a huge victory for us as well as private property owners across the country,’ Johnson said. ‘The next family that finds itself in our situation, facing ominous threats from EPA, can take heart in knowing that many of these threats will not come to pass,’ he said. ‘If, like us, you stand up to the overreaching bureaucrats, they may very well back down.

I lived much of my adult life in Wyoming. When I retire, I’m moving back. I know people like Andy Johnson, people who want nothing more than a little land in the country on which to raise their families and animals. They’re self-sufficient hard-working, decent and honorable people. Leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone. If you need help, they’ll be the first there.

Unfortunately, Johnson’s advise might not apply to most people. Our Constitution is only words on paper. Our laws, words on paper. Unless they live in our minds and hearts, unless we all understand the necessity of obeying them and fairly and rationally enforcing them, unless we are willing and able to say: “we don’t have the power to do that; it’s not our business,” law means nothing.

The EPA and other abusive, unaccountable federal bureaucracies get away with their abuses because they do the bidding of the Executive branch and because the Congress can’t be bothered to actually exercise oversight. They have the unlimited resources of the taxpayers and their own, on-staff lawyers to harry and punish decent people like Andy Johnson and his family.

Johnson was fortunate that the Pacific Legal Foundation and several local law firms were willing to fight his battle–our battle–pro bono. Wyomingites are like that. For many Americans, there is no one to stand with them unless they can afford several hundred dollars an hour for legal fees. And Johnson did not entirely win. Willow trees? Where is the federal law that gives the EPA the power to demand any citizen plant a specific kind of tree on their property? A fence? Why would anyone want to put a fence between livestock and a stock pond? I suppose there will be hundreds of pages of federal specifications for that.

Andy Johnson and some honorable lawyers fought a battle for us all. Perhaps he can now get back to raising his family and being a welder. I suspect he’s a damned good one.