Joe Robertson ran a business supplying water to firefighters tackling forest fires when he got put in jail for digging ponds on his property. The 78-year-old Navy veteran from Montana was sentenced to an 18-month federal prison term, one of his lawyers stated.
In addition to the year-and-a-half sentence, he was also ordered to pay restitutions amounting to $130,000. This would be paid through deductions from Robertson’s social security checks.
Robertson lived on his property in Montana, and supplied water to Montana firefighters. In 2013 and 2014, he began digging a series of small ponds near his home, in a wooded area. According to court documents, the ponds were located near a four foot wide and one foot deep channel, which had two to three garden hoses’ worth of water flow.
However, the government deemed that Robertson had dug in proximity to “navigable waters,” without a permit. This was in violation of the Clean Water Act, which was administered by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Act.
During a panel discussion at The Heritage Foundation, Tony Francois – a senior attorney with the nonprofit Pacific Legal Foundation – provided an account of the events leading up to the prosecution. The event was called “Horror Stories of EPA and Corps Overreach Under the Clean Water Act.”
The Pacific Legal Foundation took up Robertson’s case, and filed a petition on his behalf. They asked the Supreme Court to review Robertson’s case based on the definition of “navigable waters.” Robertson argued that he wasn’t in violation of the Clean Water Act due to the fact that digging the ponds did not lead to soil being discharged into any navigable waters. He maintained that the soil trickling into the channel did not violate the act because the channel could not be considered as navigable waters.
Additionally, Francois revealed that Roberson’s home was more than 40 miles away from the largest navigable water.
According to Francois, Robertson’s wooded surroundings were “increasingly fire prone,” and he became “concerned about the safety and vulnerability of his property,” so he dug the ponds “with a view toward being well-prepared should a fire strike.”
Robertson completed his sentence in late 2017, and was put on parole for 20 months. However, he passed away on March 18, 2018, aged 80. His widow revealed that he died of natural causes.
Pacific Legal Foundation, while waiting on the court’s ruling on the appeal, substituted Carri Robertson, the widow, as the petitioner in the appeal.