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Sonoma County vineyard manager fined for landslide near Dry Creek

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A prominent Sonoma County vineyard manager has agreed to pay $50,000 in penalties and other costs arising from a civil complaint related to a wintertime landslide on a replanting job outside Healdsburg.

Ulises Valdez, whose family business farms more than 1,000 acres, and Cloverdale engineer Kurt Kelder both were fined under a settlement announced this week for violations that officials say resulted in a stream of soil running into drainage for Dry Creek, a Russian River tributary that carries much of the North Bay’s drinking water and provides important fish and wildlife habitat.

Kelder is to pay $24,500, the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office said.

Kelder’s lawyer, James DeMartini, said his client agreed to the settlement without admitting fault, and said that while Kelder designed an erosion control plan for the property, it was Valdez who was responsible for installing it and he did not complete the job.

Valdez admitted as much in an interview, but said his oversights were minor and unintentional.

“I want to pay the fines because I’m responsible,” said Valdez, owner of Valdez & Sons Vineyard Management. The problem was “that 100-year storm,” he added, referring to a torrential downpour in December 2014.

But Russian Riverkeeper Executive Director Don McEnhill, who was among those who reported the Healdsburg-area landslide to county officials, said it was clear required erosion control measures were not in place on the steeply sloped property even weeks before a huge rainstorm hit the North Bay the week of Dec. 11, 2014, dropping more than a half-foot of rain in areas around Healdsburg and flooding downtown.

The hillside soil had been ripped and loosened to a depth of several feet when the rain hit, sending it cascading toward West Dry Creek Road and into a ditch that feeds the creek.

Though Valdez on Thursday insisted no sediment reached the creek, Deputy District Attorney Ann Gallagher White said it was clear some entered the water.

McEnhill said the slope failure discharged “massive” amounts of soil into a watershed in which millions of public dollars have been invested in an effort to restore salmon habitat.

Such sediment can impair breathing, reproduction and feeding for fish, sometimes with fatal consequences, McEnhill said.

White said the case was investigated by the county Agricultural Commissioner’s Office, which issued a notice of violation to Valdez and Kelder in the aftermath of the landslide for failure to comply with county erosion control regulations.

The District Attorney’s Office ultimately took the case and last fall filed a civil complaint alleging water pollution and unlawful business practices.

As part of the penalty, restitution payments will go to the Russian Riverkeeper for equipment and monitoring of the Dry Creek and Russian River watersheds, as well as to the Sonoma County Fish and Wildlife Propagation Fund.

“There are some incredible stewards in the vineyard industry, and there are some people who think that they can just do it any way they want,” McEnhill said. “And the reason we have rules is to keep this from happening.”

The property, in the 7100 block of West Dry Creek Road, is owned by Robert Covert and Mary Roy, residents of Illinois.

They did not return a phone call seeking comment Thursday.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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