[env-trinity] Sacramento Bee Editorial

Byron Leydecker bwl3 at comcast.net
Mon Feb 26 10:46:42 PST 2007


Editorial: Unsolved drainage mess; Should feds cut deal with San Joaquin

Sacramento Bee - 2/26/07


Congress and the federal Bureau of Reclamation set in motion an
environmental mess when the bureau began supplying irrigation water in the
1960s to the western San Joaquin Valley.


The soils are both highly productive and highly problematic. While they grow
some of the biggest almond crops on the planet and spectacular fields of
lettuce, the ground contains high concentrations of salts and selenium. This
particular element can literally kill wildlife that comes in contact with
it. When the federal government started draining the runoff from the west
valley's farm fields into a wildlife refuge known as Kesterson, the birds in
the refuge began hatching mangled offspring that belonged in a horror movie.


The feds stopped draining the water into Kesterson, but they never solved
the problem. Instead, they essentially put a plug at the bottom of a
bathtub. This has trapped this salty runoff underground or let it leach into
the troubled San Joaquin River.


Now this bathtub needs a drain and a decontamination system. But what?


Welcome to another California water conflict, where all the options are
expensive, controversial and complicated beyond human description. And the
political solution will involve the kind of bipartisan cooperation that
isn't usually in the state's political gene pool.


The bureau's Central Valley Project is lauded in textbooks as a monument to
the federal government's ability to reshape the West by damming a mighty
river (the Sacramento at Mount Shasta) and diverting the water (via a canal
far downstream in the Delta) to the San Joaquin Valley.


The CVP truly did transform the Valley, turning desert into endless fields
of crops. But desert agriculture demands a sophisticated drainage system. If
the water applied to the crops stays underground, it accumulates the salts
in the soil and can kill the next crop if the groundwater rises to the root


The original solution -- building a drain to send this soup to the delicate
Delta -- has been a nonstarter for years. So what's the solution? Many
environmental activists have long called for massive retirements of farmland
on the west side. The farmers say they plan to retire some lands, but want
to stay in business, and you can see their point. They are some of the most
sophisticated, productive growers on the planet.


Besides, the U.S. government (as in us, the taxpayers) is on the hook for
devising the drainage solution, thanks to a controversial ruling by the 9th
U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Bureau of Reclamation hasn't unveiled
that solution, but preliminary ideas suggest that the project could be
comparable to the agency's entire annual budget. How likely is that?


And then consider this: How likely is another lawsuit by the farmers against
the federal government if it were to ignore that legal obligation to clean
up the lands? Is your head hurting yet? Good. Welcome to San Joaquin's
version of "West Side Story."


The bureau, in a "concept paper," is suggesting a strategic retreat from the
San Joaquin Valley: The farmers get a big piece of the Central Valley
Project -- part ownership of a big dam (San Luis), ownership of a million
acre-feet of water rights (nearly as much as Southern California's share of
the Delta) and forgiveness of about a half-billion dollars in back payments
to build the CVP. In exchange, the farmers clean up their own lands.


This idea was hatched in an ultra secret process that involved no public
input and no public meetings. But this project is the property of the United
States, as are the water rights. Any solution must find the necessary votes
in Congress and the support of the farmers, who have the courts on their


It's another thorny problem for California's premiere water leader, Sen.
Dianne Feinstein, to add to a growing list. This won't be solved by a
classic backroom water deal, but with diplomacy demanded by every interest
that deeply cares about the Valley and the Delta. A chance to finally solve
this problem shouldn't go down the drain.



Byron Leydecker

Friends of Trinity River, Chair

California Trout,Inc., Advisor

PO Box 2327

Mill Valley, CA 94942-2327

415 383 4810 ph

415 383 9562 fx

 <mailto:bwl3 at comcast.net> bwl3 at comcast.net

 <mailto:bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org> bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org

http:// <http://www.fotr.org> www.fotr.org

http:// <http://www.caltrout.org> www.caltrout.org 


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