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Toxic runoff disposal could imperil water

Friday, September 18, 2009

U.S. agency offers 3 options; critics prefer retiring farmland

San Francisco Chronicle, Glen Martin

Published November 1, 2005

A pending decision on the disposal of contaminated wastewater produced by San Joaquin Valley agriculture could have disastrous consequences for Bay Area drinking water, fisheries and wildlife, officials say.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which is expected to make a final decision next year, has presented three options. One would dump the water into the delta of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers, a source of drinking water for several East Bay cities.

A second would pipe it to the ocean near Morro Bay (San Luis Obispo County). The third would divert it to San Joaquin Valley evaporation ponds that could harm wildlife.

The delta alternative is particularly worrisome to Bay Area government officials.

"If that alternative is chosen, the pipeline would run close to the canal that delivers water from the delta to our service facility," said Greg Gartrell, assistant general manager for the Contra Costa Water District, which serves several East Bay cities with delta water.

"If there's a leak in the pipeline, it could contaminate our canal," Gartrell said, adding that the proposed drain would dump into Suisun Bay, possibly near the district's water inlet. The district is also concerned about the effect of the additional pollution on delta fisheries and wildlife, he said.

"Everything considered, we support the (evaporation pond) alternative," Gartrell said.

But none of the options will do what critics say is necessary to solve the problem once and for all: take 300,000 acres of tainted farmland out of production.

Drain water contaminated with selenium has bedeviled farmers in the western San Joaquin Valley, astride Interstate 5, for decades. When lands in this area are irrigated, salt, boron and selenium present in the soil dissolve, then concentrate near the surface.

Selenium is highly toxic to fish and wildlife and has been implicated in both fishery declines and the deaths of thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl.

Crops can grow in the presence of selenium, but not boron or salt. So the soils must be flushed with additional water to remove the minerals. To stay in business, farmers must then dispose of this drain water -- a dilemma for which there is no easy solution.

The problem is especially difficult for the Westlands Water District, at 600,000 acres the largest irrigation district in the country. Some of its tracts are so waterlogged with drain water that the district has retired about 40,000 acres of land from production.

The evaporation pond alternative would involve some retirement of agricultural land from irrigation.

But Tom Stokely, a natural resources planner, is convinced there's only one sound solution: Stop irrigating land rich in selenium. Stokely estimates that retiring about 300,000 acres of land would solve the problem. Most or all of the retired land would come from Westlands, which accounts for most of the cropland in the west valley.

As a planner for Trinity County, Stokely is concerned about the state's water systems sending so much water from the Trinity and Klamath rivers to Southern California that the rivers' salmon fisheries are endangered.

An equitable drain solution, he said, is critical to the general issue of water in California. Retiring west valley land, he said, would not only eliminate the need for an expensive drain system, but would free large amounts of water for cities and the environment.

Stokely's contentions are shared by many environmental and fisheries advocacy organizations, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations and the Environmental Working Group.

But the manager of Westlands, Tom Birmingham, said the district's farmers could not sustain the economic hit that would result from retiring roughly half their cropland.

"We are meeting the terms of our federal contracts -- putting our water to reasonable and prudent use," Birmingham said. Under the original terms of the federal project that delivers water to Westlands, "the bureau is required to provide a solution to the drain water issue."

Birmingham said his district had made tremendous strides in reducing the volume of drain water by using water more efficiently.

Heavy investment in new irrigation and crop monitoring technology, he said, has greatly increased the district's water efficiency -- so that more than 90 percent of the water applied to fields is used by crop plants and less than 10 percent ends up as drain water.

That still adds up to millions of gallons of drain water annually. Birmingham acknowledged that a long-term solution to the problem must be found if thousands of acres of west-side land were to remain productive.

"We don't have a preferred alternative at this point," he said. "From an engineering standpoint, a drain to the ocean makes the most sense, but it is unlikely for political reasons.

"We do intend to work with the bureau for a solution that is permanent, cost effective and environmentally sound."

Stokely said all of the options presented by the Bureau of Reclamation put the environmental and economic onus on the public.

"All of the alternatives involve huge environmental downsides," he said. "Disposal in the delta would affect fisheries and birds and could affect drinking water quality for East Bay cities. You'd have similar environmental impacts for coastal disposal."

Evaporation ponds, he said, would result in a reprise of the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge debacle of the 1980s.

That event occurred when selenium-contaminated drain water from San Joaquin Valley fields was used to flood the refuge's marshes and ponds. Thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds died from selenium poisoning. The San Luis drain, the partially completed pipeline that transported the contaminated water from the fields, was closed.

Since then, west valley farmers have been allowed to reopen part of the San Luis drain to eke out a portion of their wastewater to the San Joaquin River.

In the early 1990s, farmers sued federal regulators to provide a long-term solution to the problem, such as completion of the San Luis drain to the delta.

In 1995, a federal judge ruled that the Bureau of Reclamation had to file for state permits to complete the San Luis drain, and in 2000, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed that the agency must provide some kind of wastewater solution. In response to the court's decision, the bureau presented its alternatives.

In March, Stokely made a presentation to the State Water Resources Control Board to promote land retirement over a completed drain. He emphasized that the board's own reports identified west-side irrigation as the primary cause of the salt pollution problem that plagues San Joaquin Valley croplands.

Stokely planned to make the same pitch to the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors, which is concerned with declining salmon populations on the Klamath River. The Trinity is a Klamath tributary and the basic source of cold water for the Klamath.

But before Stokely could make his pitch, he got a call from Birmingham, Westlands manager. Birmingham threatened Trinity County with lawsuits unless Stokely toned down his rhetoric, Stokely said.

Birmingham said he was puzzled by Stokely's allegations.

"I never told him or anyone else they shouldn't be involved in these issues. ... I did ask of his interest, and said I wanted to sit down and talk things over. And I did express deep concerns about his rhetoric."

Drain pains

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is looking at three alternatives for completing the San Luis drain, which would dispose of selenium-tainted agricultural wastewater from the western San Joaquin Valley:

1 Drainage to the Sacramento River-San Joaquin River Delta:

Disposal would be either near Chipps Island off Antioch or near the Carquinez Bridge. Concerns include threats to drinking water, fisheries and wildlife.

2 Drainage to the ocean:

A pipeline traversing the Coast Range would end in Morro Bay (San Luis Obispo County.) Advocates say the open sea would provide ample room for diluting the effluent to safe levels, but environmentalists say fish and birds could still be affected.

3 The in-valley solution:

This approach would consist of a combination of retired agricultural lands and evaporation ponds. After the drain water evaporates in the ponds, the remaining solids would be disposed of in approved landfills. Environmentalists favor complete reliance on land retirement, arguing that evaporation ponds, no matter how configured, would poison birds.

Source: ESRI, TeleAtlas, USGS, U.S. Dept. of Interior

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