(April 7, 3:22 p.m.) The Environmental Protection Agency has accused a Madera County, Calif., almond grower of illegally expanding acreage into federally protected land in the Fresno River.

Patrick Ricchiuti, president of P-R Farms Inc., Clovis, Calif., however, said he worked with county officials and a civil engineer to ensure the company complied with the law.

The EPA launched an investigation into Clean Water Act violations in January, three months after an anonymous tip to a regional water quality control board, said Amy Miller, the EPA’s enforcement leader in San Francisco.

During an April 1 teleconference, Miller said the agency used aerial photographs to investigate and determined that Ricchiuti had expanded his land by as much as seven acres, she said.

“The EPA has issued an order to remove the fill material that he’s placed in the Fresno River,” Miller said. “When fill material is placed in wetlands, the farmer must first obtain a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, and he has not done so.”

The order also directs Ricchiuti to restore the levee.

“There aren’t any levees out there,” Ricchiuti said of the land he purchased in 2003.

Since buying the land, Ricchiuti said new almond trees had replaced an aging stone fruit orchard and improvements were made to reinforce the riverbank.

Encroachment in the river is becoming a concern among federal, state and county officials, Miller said.

“Today’s action, in part, is to highlight that this is an issue and that people are required to obtain permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” she said.

The EPA is looking into as many as five other possible violations in the San Joaquin Valley, Miller said.

The Clean Water Act provides for penalties up to $37,500 for each day until the violations are corrected. The encroachments on Ricchiuti’s land date back to 2006.

“Our first goal is to get restoration,” Miller said. “At a later date, we’ll determine what, if any, penalties are appropriate.”

The Fresno River, a tributary of the San Joaquin River, is most often dry west of Madera, according to the California Water Resources Control Board.

“The Fresno River is controlled by the Hidden Dam and releases do happen annually,” Miller said. “His encroachment decreases the size of the channel, which will cause the river to run more quickly and could cause damage downstream.”

She said the Corps of Engineers conducts an outreach program including sending letters to landowners alerting them of the permit requirement.

Ricchiuti said the program apparently is not very efficient.

“We have had zero outreach from the Corps,” he said.