Solution to Toxic Runoff From San Joaquin Valley Farms Questioned
Experts cast doubt on toxic water plan
By Glen Martin, San Francisco Chronicle, January 18, 2007
An internal government memo obtained by The Chronicle shows that the federal government wants to spend billions of dollars on a plan to fix one of the San Joaquin Valley's most intractable pollution problems.
The policy, expected to be confirmed in a Feb. 16 announcement, targets the decades-old dilemma of toxic water that drains from some west valley farms -- contamination that has caused the deformities and deaths of thousands of birds since the problem was first discovered at Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in the 1980s.
The new policy outlined in the memo involves:
-- Paying potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money to farmers who would take about 194,000 acres of cropland out of production.
-- Treating some farm drainage water with expensive technology to remove selenium, a naturally occurring element in west San Joaquin Valley soils that can poison wildlife and poses a danger to humans.
-- Building more than 2,000 acres of artificial ponds in the valley to collect drainage water until it evaporates.Officials with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that sets federal water policy, declined to comment specifically on the memo, which was written by an agency staffer and verified by several sources familiar with the negotiations. None of the staff members wanted to be named by The Chronicle because of fears of retaliation from their employers.
Some experts who have read the memo say the plan, which could cost upward of $2 billion, is much more expensive than past proposals and could amount to little more than payouts to a few hundred farmers.
Many experts who monitor water issues in California say the memo represents an extreme departure from previous proposals."The insanity of this plan defies economic, scientific and just plain common sense," said Tom Stokely, a director of the advocacy group California Water Impact Network. "It's clear this alternative will not work and taxpayers will end up paying the bill."Stokely and other activists preferred earlier proposals that would have taken much more selenium-laden cropland out of production.
Drain water from western San Joaquin Valley farms has been a problem for years.Growers there use salty irrigation water imported from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and delivered via a canal-and-pump system. The federal government subsidizes that water, delivering it to the farmers through long-term water contracts.
Over time, salt builds up on the land and farmers flush it away with additional water. This takes away most of the concentrated salt, but it also flushes out large quantities of selenium that occur naturally in the soil.At sufficiently high levels, selenium can poison fish, wildlife and people. To solve the drainage disposal problem, the Bureau of Reclamation in 1968 started building the San Luis Drain so the contaminated water would flow into the delta. It was stopped in 1975 due to high costs and a growing awareness of selenium's dangers.
In the 1980s, wildlife officials discovered that selenium-tainted drain water had caused birth deformities and deaths of thousands of birds at Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, where some of the polluted water was sent. The San Luis Drain was never completed.So in 1995, the Westlands Water District -- which at 600,000 acres is the largest water district in the country and represents hundreds of farmers -- sued the federal government, demanding a solution to the dilemma of drain-water disposal. A federal appeals court in 2000 ordered the Bureau of Reclamation to solve the problem.
Most recently, it seemed the Bureau of Reclamation was poised to pay farmers to permanently retire about 308,000 acres of farmland and build a large system of ponds to collect much of the remaining runoff water.That plan could have cost more than $300 million for the evaporation ponds and compensation to farmers for crop losses; perhaps another $900 million -- or $3,000 an acre -- would be paid to retire the land.Yet, according to the internal government memo, the agency now favors a much more expensive plan -- one that could cost between $2 billion and $3 billion over a 50-year-period. This new plan would retire only 194,000 acres of cropland, build even more evaporation ponds, and use reverse osmosis water-treatment technology to help remove the selenium from the drain water.
Ultimately, any agreement that settles Westlands' lawsuit would have to be approved by a federal judge, and Congress would have to agree to pay for it.Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Jeff McCracken -- who declined to identify the plan the agency now favors -- wouldn't confirm the policy shift. But he said it was within the agency's authority to change its policy with regard to the selenium problem."We do have the legal right to select any alternative within the legal confines" of the environmental studies, said McCracken. "It is not unique to go from a preferred alternative to another alternative that meets everyone's interests."The affected farmers, in general, want to retire less land than environmentalists, who say the best solution to the selenium problem involves retiring as much land as possible.
Stokely said the Bureau of Reclamation's new plan will only exacerbate the selenium problem."The problem is easily solved. Less irrigation, less drain water," Stokely said.The Bureau of Reclamation's new plan may also allow irrigators to keep both the land and their promised allotments of federally subsidized water, Stokely said. The so-called "retired" land could then be irrigated with groundwater, he said."Basically, the public will pay billions of dollars for worse than nothing. We'll have fewer options for solving the selenium problem and less control over public water," Stokely said.
And tests by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show the reverse osmosis treatment won't work well enough to solve the problem. Joe Skorupa, a biologist for the agency and an expert on selenium's impact on wildlife, said there are only two ways to fix the pollution: Irrigate less land, or somehow get the drainage water safely out of the valley."Anything else is a stalling action," he said. "Basically, the less water you put on the land, the less polluted water you have coming out the bottom."Skorupa also questioned the proposed ponds that would collect the selenium-tainted water and allow it to evaporate. The ponds are bird magnets, he said."All things being equal, the fewer evaporation ponds, the better," he said.Westlands Water District spokeswoman Sarah Woolf confirmed that the district's farmers have been discussing lawsuit settlement options with the Bureau of Reclamation, but she would not go into details. She also refused The Chronicle's requests to speak with farmers about the issue."We're not confident any of the drainage options under consideration will really solve the problem," Woolf said. "Each of them has some problems."
Woolf said she knew nothing about another aspect of the government memo: The proposed transfer of San Luis Reservoir, a water-storage reservoir owned jointly by the state and federal governments, to west valley water districts. The Los Banos-area reservoir now serves the farmers, Southern California municipalities and some Santa Clara County cities. Such a transfer would give farmers much more control over when -- and how much -- water is released.Carl Torgersen, the chief of state water project operations and management for the California Department of Water Resources, said his agency supports efforts to solve the San Joaquin Valley's drainage problem. But it would be premature to discuss details, Torgersen said -- including the future of San Luis Reservoir.
But Karen Schambach, the California director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said transfer of the reservoir shouldn't be considered."It's really inappropriate to be having discussions of disposing of a public resource to a private party," Schambach said. "Who's looking out for the public in this?"
Regardless of how the Bureau of Reclamation proceeds, the scrutiny from the new Democratic Congress could be rigorous.Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Norwalk (Los Angeles County), who is expected to take over the House Subcommittee on Water and Power, said she had serious concerns about selenium contamination and threats to wildlife and drinking water."In the past, the Bureau of Reclamation and I have had many differences," Napolitano said. "We may be compelled to hold hearings on this current situation."
How agricultural drain water is becoming contaminated:
Water coming off farms in the western San Joaquin Valley is picking up selenium, an element that can be poisonous to fish, wildlife and people.
1. Irrigation water is applied to croplands in the western San Joaquin Valley, an area with selenium-rich soils.
2. Salt in the irrigation water concentrates around the root zone of the plants.
3. To remove the concentrated salts and keep land productive, farmers flush their lands with more water.
4. The water that drains off the fields picks up selenium from the soil as well as salt. The high levels of selenium can be toxic to wildlife, especially birds.