The Shakedown of Curtimade Dairy
In a lawsuit filed on July 31 of this year, Curtimade Dairy is being sued by the city of Corcoran for $65 million for nitrate contamination of its municipal wells.
Nitrate contamination is rampant throughout the Central Valley and happens naturally, but is primarily caused by over pumping, fertilizers, pesticides, and septic tanks.
Tess Hall owns and runs the dairy located on the border of Tulare and Corcoran with her dad, Ben Curti. Together they have been fighting the lawsuit for four years.
And yes, I said $65 million.
More than two million Californians are affected by wells contaminated with a high level of nitrates. For the city to attribute the nitrates to Curtimade Dairy as if the pollutant arrived at its wells with little name tags is rather absurd.
Curtimade dairy is permitted, certified, inspected, and files expensive and lengthy reports every year with the Regional Water Quality Control Board.
The question is, out of the 350 dairies and thousands of farms in Kings and Tulare Counties – why them?
Here is a fast history of water in the Tulare Lake Basin.
Corcoran sits on the former lake that is now an underground bath of nitrates. By the end of the 20th century Tulare Lake was dry because agriculture diverted all the river water for irrigation. Fast forward 100 years to the great drought of 2011 – 2016 and private and municipal wells were failing in Corcoran and everywhere in the Valley.
In fact Corcoran never has drilled wells in town because its water is so contaminated with arsenic and nitrates. Corcoran had to dig its municipal wells on private land two and a half miles away just to find potable water.
While the city’s lawsuit makes for interesting reading, the evidence doesn’t prove Curtimade Dairy is responsible for the city’s water woes. In fact, there is a wealth of evidence that the Curtimade Dairy should not be targeted.
According to historical maps, the underground aquifer flows from the northeast to the southwest starting at the Sierras and ending at the Coastal Range.
That means Curtimade Dairy is slightly downstream from two of the wells in questions and parallel to one. The nitrates could have originated from farmland or dairies to the northeast of Corcoran’s troubled municipal wells 1A, 2A, and 3A.
In fact, the two wells closest to Curtimade Dairy, 3A and 2A, consistently test the lowest for nitrates while the farthest well tests the highest. The Curti’s personal irrigation wells right next to their dairy has always tested well below state levels for nitrates.
This might be because the Curti wells are modern whereas the municipal wells in question are 50 years old and only have three to five years left of functionality.
The one fact that survives scrutiny in the city’s lawsuit is that the origin of the nitrates is organic and not synthetic, meaning it comes from animal waste.
The lawsuit states that Curtimade Dairy’s manure lagoons seep into the groundwater and have “no synthetic liner or artificial barrier.” But that’s not true. Curitmade Dairy’s lagoons have a clay liner and are certified by the Regional Water Quality Control Board.
The suit also points out that Curtimade Dairy uses composted manure as bedding and that they spread it on their alfalfa crops. The lawsuit states that their negligent practice of using manure as fertilizer seeps into the groundwater.
For all those unfamiliar with farming, all dairies and row crops use manure for bedding or to fertilize. Manure is a cash crop. According to the Kings County 2018 Crop Report the county produced 842,794 tons of manure that sold for $3.6 million dollars, most of which was spread over Tulare and Kings County fields.
Ms. Hall asked Public Works Director, Joe Faulkner, if the three municipal wells were reduced to minimal capacity in 2015 because of the drought or nitrates. She said he told her it was the drought.
Mr. Faulkner told the Voice that he was not a hydrologist so he does not know how the experts who compiled data for the lawsuit concluded Curtimade Dairy was solely at fault.
“This is the dairy capital of the world,” he said. Corcoran’s number one industry besides the prison is farming. Even the prison has a dairy.
But he did echo evidence from the suit that establishes the nitrates might have come from the general direction of the Curtimade Dairy. Mr. Faulkner said that during wet years the underground water flows south but in dry years the water moves all around. During the drought there was a downward gradient water flow from Curtimade Dairy to the municipal wells during heavy pumping.
He said that in the height of the drought in 2015 wells 1A, 2A, and then 3A “went down like dominos.” He also confirmed that well 1A, the furthest from Curtimade Dairy, was the most contaminated.
And why does 2015 keep on coming up? Because the data collected in 2015 is what the city’s staff and lawyer, Mr. Farley, is using to justify suing Curtimade Dairy. Since the drought nitrate levels have returned to normal.
Finally, the lawsuit admits, “Once nitrates enter the water table, they become very transitory and easily move with the flow of groundwater.”
Transitory? Meaning they could have come from anywhere?
So let’s sum up the city’s case.
Corcoran’s water is so polluted the city has to dig wells outside the city limits. These outdated wells then became contaminated because the underground aquifer went haywire during the drought. And Corcoran doesn’t want the money to fix the water table now because its fine, but wants the Curtis to pay for all the expensive experts, attorney fees, and repairs done in 2015.
Just to reiterate, the city’s wells are currently in compliance and neighboring farms and diaries have been cleared by the Regional Water Quality Control Board.
In May of 2017 the Regional Water Quality Control Board sent letters to all landowners within a one-mile radius of the city’s wells asking them to participate with a mediator, lawyer, and experts to find a solution. After approximately a year and a half of researching the problem and negotiating with the city the Landowner Group made a substantial offer in February of this year.
The city rejected the offer.
Corcoran City Manager Kindon Meik said there has been a lot of discussion over the four years but that the city has not been presented with a feasible solution. The Landowners Group’s offer was confidential.
“If the dairy would present a serious written offer the city council would entertain it,” said Mr. Meik.
So where did the idea originate to sue the Curti family in particular?
“I have been digging through agenda packets, legal documents and records to figure out who or where the idea to sue our family came from,” said Ms. Hall.
Ms. Hall has been pregnant and had the baby, who is now almost ready to go to school, while fighting this suit. Her dad was still in rehab after a serious car accident when he received the certified letter four years ago stating the city’s intent to sue for seven or eight million dollars.
Ms. Hall does not think the timing of the letter was a coincidence. While going down rabbit holes, and ruminating all these years, her brain has conjured up all kinds of conspiracy theories.
But Justin Curti, Ms. Hall’s cousin, hit the nail on the head. “It all comes down to money.”
“Corcoran is carrying a heavy debt load,” said Ms. Hall.
Add that to the fact that Corcoran’s population, i.e. tax base, has decreased by 3,000 people in the last few years and city had to get creative.
The shakedown goes like this: Find an under-the-radar farming family to sue for a ridiculous amount of money. Settle out of court for a huge sum that might cause bankruptcy, illness or death of one of the defendants. Collect the settlement, misspend the money as small towns tend to do, rinse, repeat.
Even though the law suit has consumed Ms. Hall’s and her dad’s lives for the last four years she said there is a bigger picture than just her family.
If Corcoran is successful then all dairies and farmers are at risk of being sued out of business. Every city in the Central Valley could sue a dairy or farmer every few years claiming they contaminated the city’s wells.
This is a precedent setting case, and little Corcoran might now become notorious for more than formerly housing Charles Manson.
That’s why Tulare dairyman Xavier Avila has given a rallying cry for the farming community to stand together.
“It’s time to once again flood the City of Corcoran with our concerns about their extortion tactics to squeeze money out of a local business. The city is saddled with debt, uses water funds to pay for other things, and its claims are unfounded.”
The decision to continue or drop the suit ultimately rests with the Corcoran City Council. So Mr. Avila is encouraging the ag community to show up to the meeting January 14, and every meeting thereafter, until the city council votes to drop the suit or accept the settlement offered by the Landowners Group.
Remember when former Tulare Mayor Carlton Jones made disparaging remarks about agriculture on his facebook page? My Job Depends on Ag had a tri tip barbeque outside the council chambers and hundreds of people showed up to the meeting demanding Mr. Jones be removed as mayor. They succeeded.
Are you listening Corcoran City Council?