Los Banos dairy farmer Dennis Areias said he was looking at two options when rain waters flooded his farm and sickened his cattle: follow the law and witness the deaths of dozens of heifers, or break some rules and save his cows while mending the damage as much as possible.
"I'm not going to let them die out there," Areias said.
Areias, also a trustee of the Los Banos Unified School District Board who contributes to ag-related school activities, is charged with a felony count of discharging hazardous waste and a misdemeanor count of depositing it in state waterways. He pleaded not guilty to the charges Nov. 17 in Merced Superior Court.
A report from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife stated that Areias admitted on Feb. 15 to pumping water containing cow waste from his farm on the corner of Henry Miller Road and Box Car Road. The report states he pumped the waste across Henry Miller into a privately owned drainage ditch that leads north to Salt Slough, which flows into the San Joaquin River.
Areias said he was transporting the floodwaters to save his heifers.
"I saw them getting sick," he said. "I still lost four of them."
Tests on water samples in the area of the dumping resulted in levels of ammonia and sediment high enough to harm fish downstream, according to the CDFW report.
At the site Tuesday, Areias pointed out how he dumped the water, and where it stopped, about 1,600 feet north of Henry Miller Road.
"I didn't harm one fish," Areias said. "The water never made it to Salt Slough."
Areias also noted that CDFW tested the water at the site of the dumping, but didn't test soil samples downstream where the dumping never reached.
CDFW officials declined to comment on the report, citing the legal proceedings.
Areias said news of the felony troubled him because it evoked comparisons to former school trustee and former Los Banos Mayor Tommy Jones, who is awaiting trial for felony charges of bribing another former trustee to vote for a local contractor, Gregory Opinski.
Jones and Opinski pleaded not guilty to the charges and have a scheduled trial date of Feb. 27.
"I did what I had to do for the safety of my animals," Areias said, adding that he never lied about what he did.
Areias said he consulted with the San Luis Canal Company and received the private landowner's permission before dumping the water into the ditch. The San Luis Canal Company maintains and operates easements with canals and drains to deliver water to landowners.
Chase Hurley, a consultant for the San Luis Canal Company who was the general manager at the time of the dumping, confirmed that Areias sought his advice while facing the dilemma.
Areias first asked Hurley if he could pump the water from his corrals into the west delta drain or to the south of his farm, which Hurley denied because it was filled with flood water already and it led into Salt Slough outside the company's boundaries.
Areias then asked Hurley if he could pump into the West Delta canal south of the farm, which Hurley also denied because it was used to deliver water to state and private refuges.
Then, Areias asked Hurley if he could pump into the dry drainage ditch across Henry Miller Road. Hurley told him it was acceptable as long as he got the landowners' permission, and as long as the waste water doesn't reach the Delta Farms barn off Bisignani Road to the north.
"When Dennis said he was going to do this, I told him he didn't have a legal right," Hurley said. "But I told him if he does it I'm going to monitor him. If it gets to the barn, I'm going to shut it down."
Hurley and Areias said the wastewater never traveled up to that point. Areias also said he pumped back whatever water he could to his farm after his heifers were safe, a point that wasn't noted in the CDFW report.
"I think he was trying to do the right thing," Hurley said. "Even though he knew it was wrong, he didn't have any other choice."
But as of Thursday, the felony charges brought by Taylor Rhodes, a circuit prosecutor who Merced County District Attorney's officials said is handling the case, still stand.
Multiple calls to Rhodes requesting comment have not been returned.
"I just don't know why they slapped a felony," Areias said, adding that he hasn't heard any response from Rhodes or other state attorney after the charges were filed.
While Areias is contesting the felony charge, he said he is willing to pay a fine for his actions. But he was upset at what he said was a lack of communication.
"All I want to do was sit down at a table, have them listen to what I did and why I did it, tell me what kind of penalty I need to pay, and have this over with and behind us," he said.
Areias' next court hearing is scheduled for Wednesday in Merced Superior Court.