[env-trinity] High Country News 11 19 01
bwl3 at comcast.net
Wed Jan 13 11:13:15 PST 2010
A November 2001 story on Westlands' contaminated drainage problems.
Meanwhile, more than $100 million, yes more than $100 million has been spent
on state and federal studies seeking a solution to the problem. None has
been found other than land retirement.
InfoWill salt sink an agricultural empire?
>From <http://www.hcn.org/issues/215> the November 19, 2001 issue of High
Country News by Jim Downing
Feds still plugged up over disposal of irrigation waters
FRESNO, Calif. - From an unassuming office of the federal Bureau of
Reclamation here, Mike Delamore manages a problem that has felled empires
since biblical times: salt.
Delamore is drainage chief for the largest, richest and most troubled
irrigation district in the nation. For much of his career, he has tried to
balance two incompatible demands: draining salt from one of the world's most
productive plots of farmland, and protecting water quality in the San
Francisco Bay Delta.
He hasn't succeeded yet. "The agency has been dealing with this for more
than 40 years," he says.
It might seem surprising the problem is that difficult. All irrigation water
carries some salt, but the water diverted from the Sacramento and San
Joaquin rivers to farms in the San Joaquin Valley has lower salinity than
typical Southern California tap water * about one pound of salt for every
The problem here is volume. To produce more than $1 billion in crops each
year, the 1,000-square-mile Westlands Water District imports up to 400
billion gallons containing 610,000 tons of salt. It's the equivalent of a
train of salt 6,100 cars long, year after year.
When, under the San Luis Act, Congress authorized the Bureau of Reclamation
to bring the irrigation water to the west side of the valley in 1960,
geologic surveys revealed an impermeable layer of clay beneath the area's
sandy loam. In soil like this, irrigation salts build up and will eventually
sterilize the land. So Congress told the Bureau to provide drainage from the
valley to flush out the salt.
But, says Delamore, "I don't think anybody contemplated back in 1960 how
difficult" building such a drain would be.
The Bureau started a 197-mile aqueduct to the delta, but the effort stalled
in 1974, 112 miles short of its goal, when political opposition arose in the
Bay Area and funding grew tight. Drain water then poured into a holding
pond, forming Kesterson Reservoir, which proved to be an infamous killer of
wildlife. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service linked deformed and dead birds
at the reservoir to selenium, a naturally occurring but toxic element that
had also been flushed from the irrigated soil. So in 1985, the Bureau closed
the San Luis Drain.
Today, the drain is still plugged and the salt is still building up on the
farmland. The land's productivity is falling and, partly as a result,
farmers are going bankrupt. Environmentalists and the state water board,
worried about threats to wildlife and human health, refuse to consider
completing a drain to the delta, an area already impacted by pollutants.
"Any increase in the amount of agricultural runoff coming into the delta is
going to bring in more salts and more pollution," says Jeff McLain,
fisheries biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "And that's not
good for the resident fish populations."
Yet federal courts, ruling on a lawsuit by the irrigation district, have
reinforced the requirement that the Bureau of Reclamation has to do
something about the salt. With the courts, Congress and farmers on one side,
and laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act on the
other side, the Bureau is caught in the middle.
The San Francisco Bay's delta stretches up the two main river systems nearly
to Stockton and Sacramento and includes hundreds of miles of channels and
islands. The delta receives about half of California's total precipitation
runoff. It is the state's hydraulic hub: Water stored in the reservoirs in
the Sierra Nevada flows to the delta, then is pumped south to cities and
farms. Contaminate the hub too much, and you contaminate the whole system.
The delta is also a habitat hotspot. Millions of migratory birds stop in
each year. Threatened and endangered chinook salmon, steelhead, delta smelt
and Sacramento splittail all migrate through or live in the delta. In all,
230 species of birds, 45 species of mammals, 52 species of fish, and 150
species of flowering plants live in the delta, says Bill Jennings, director
of DeltaKeeper, an environmental group based in Stockton.
"It really is a marvelous estuary," says Jennings. "And it is in critical
condition, suffering the death of a thousand cuts."
Already, the delta suffers from high levels of pesticides, mercury, selenium
and other toxics along with low dissolved oxygen levels, due to runoff from
farms, cities and other sources, Jennings says. "The delta simply can't
assimilate increased amounts of salt," he says.
Federal and state efforts to find other ways to deal with the salt have cost
an estimated $50 million so far, exploring a range of technologies and
management schemes, including desalinization plants and salt-concentration
Every strategy has a drawback: Desalinization systems are energy-intensive
and leave behind mountains of salt. Evaporation ponds take up huge tracts of
land, and also leave salt behind. Researchers have come up with methods to
remove toxic selenium from the drainwater, but they also leave salts.
All of the technical fixes would be expensive. The Bureau estimates that
completing the San Luis Drain would cost $850 million, while the cheapest
in-valley disposal solution, evaporation ponds, would run $1.5 billion.
Under reclamation laws, that cost would be borne by the project's
beneficiaries, the district's growers.
"Farming can't support most of the options they've come up with so far,"
says Thad Bettner, the district's resource manager.
Though the district receives only seven inches of rain a year, the farmers
grow about 25 crops, including citrus, grapes, beans, lettuce, broccoli and
cauliflower, thanks to the irrigation diversions and pumped groundwater.
A nontechnical strategy - inconceivable until recently - is to take farmland
out of production. The district and the Bureau have reportedly been talking
about the Department of the Interior buying 200,000 acres - a third of the
district - for $500 million. Such a massive land retirement would be a
confession that irrigating this portion of the arid West no longer makes
sense. It would also mean loss of crop production and a hit to the economy
in one of the state's poorest regions.
"This concept of taking land out of production is almost sinful when you
think about how good that soil was, and how good it could be again with
drainage," says Lou Beck, a retired district chief for the California
Department of Water Resources.
"If the government does nothing (about the salt buildup), then for sure
during my lifetime or my children's lifetime, the ground will go out of
production," says Ted Sheeley, who grows tomatoes, garlic, pistachios and
cotton on 1,000 acres. Salty groundwater is now within five feet of the
surface on half of his land and his yields are falling.
With their only alternative to sell out at depressed prices, the farmers
continue what amounts to suicide irrigation. Last year, 10 percent of the
district's farmers went bankrupt, which Sheeley says is due partly to salt
and partly to shifts in global markets. Sheeley, also a member of the
district's board of directors, is one of many people here who feel betrayed
by the Bureau of Reclamation. "The Bureau has become very influenced by
environmental groups. In the past, the Bureau looked out for our interests."
Mike Delamore calls the Bureau's approach these days "an evolution in
thinking," based on a succession of federal laws, court decisions and
evolving science. Under the most recent court order to settle on some
strategy, issued by the 9th Circuit Court last December, Delamore is working
toward a 2005 deadline to do an environmental impact statement and decide
what to do with the salt. The reasonable alternatives to be considered
include, once again, completing the San Luis Drain.
At DeltaKeeper, Jennings says any attempt to complete the drain will only
trigger a lawsuit in defense of the delta.
"We may end up with competing court decisions," he says. From his
perspective, "Ultimately the San Luis Drain is an elusive dream. It's not
going to happen."
Jim Downing wrote this story while taking an environmental journalism course
at the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley.
Byron Leydecker, JcT
Chair, Friends of Trinity River
PO Box 2327
Mill Valley, CA 94942-2327
415 383 4810 land/fax (call first to fax)
415 519 4810 mobile
<mailto:bwl3 at comcast.net> bwl3 at comcast.net
<mailto:bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org> bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org
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