Further Down the Drain
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation wants to bet up to $1 billion of your tax dollars that its latest proposals to carry toxic waste waters away from the nation’s largest federal irrigation project will not result in another ecological disaster like the selenium poisoning of the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge more than 20 years ago.
The Bureau is putting the final touches on an environmental impact statement (EIS) due Feb. 1, 2006 in which it will announce support for one of three possible drainage solutions: Delta Disposal, Central Coast disposal, or building drainage treatment facilities and evaporation ponds within the San Joaquin Valley with varying levels of land retirement.
Opponents say the Bureau’s science is flawed, threatens fisheries and birds, and that construction and operation costs are likely to become astronomical for keeping just a few hundred growers in business irrigating a desert.
The final EIS comes in response to a ruling by the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal five years ago requiring the Bureau to provide drainage for the 730,000-acre San Luis Unit of the Central Valley Project, first approved by Congress in 1960. The mammoth Westlands Water District, at 604,000 acres, is not only the largest federal irrigation in the San Luis Unit but the largest in the nation. It has between 400 and 600 growers. A few small water districts to the north of Westlands are also in the San Luis Unit.
Westlands is also currently negotiating a new 25-year water delivery contract for 1.15 million acre-feet of water a year (an acre-foot is 325,851 gallons) even though major land retirement of marginal lands in the San Luis Unit should, theoretically, drastically reduce water needs in the gargantuan 942-square mile district.
Completion of the San Luis Drain to the Delta bogged down nearly 25 years ago when it was discovered drainwater flowing from the Westlands was riddled with the trace element selenium. Selenium-laced drainage funneled 82 miles to evaporation ponds at the Kesterson marsh in the early 1980s triggered a fish die off and deformities in embryos of ducks and shorebirds. The Kesterson ponds were ordered closed in 1985 and Westlands growers have been scrambling ever since to keep their mineral-laden desert lands from salting up.
Environmentalists say the three proposed dumping sites: (1) the east end of the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary, (2) the Pacific Ocean near Morro Bay or, (3) thousands of acres of bird-attracting evaporation ponds within the western San Joaquin Valley, are all fraught with peril and could poison drinking supplies or harm fisheries in the Bay-Delta or on the Central Coast.
Here are the three options:
1. Bay-Delta disposal: This has been the preferred alternative for half a century. Since the 1960s, Bay Area interests have fiercely opposed any efforts to complete a drainage canal to the southeast end of the Delta at Chipps Island, with the wastes to be flushed out through Suisun Bay and San Francisco Bay to the Golden Gate. Bureau officials argue the drainage could be treated, safely diluted and flushed to the Pacific despite a 2000 report by U.S. Geological Survey scientists Theresa Presser and Sam Luoma which warned the selenium-tainted West Side drainage poses a major risk to Delta fish and bird reproduction, including the possibility of extinction of fish species from contamination of their food chain.
Selenium was the trace element dissolved in ag drainage that poisoned the Kesterson food chain in the early 1980s, leading to a fish and bird die-off at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in western Merced County 80 miles southeast of San Francisco.
John Kopchik of the Contra Costa County Water Agency warned Congress in July that San Luis drainage funneled to the Delta could contaminate drinking water supplies now flowing to 22 million Californians.
The Delta drainage disposal option could cost near $700 million and take $36 million a year to operate and maintain. This would be a very tough sell in Congress.
2. Central Coast disposal near Morro Bay: This $600 million project (preliminary cost estimate) would involve 211 miles of buried pipeline with three tunnels through the Coast Range and 23 pumping plants and sumps. A drain pipe would run 1.4 miles into the sea off Point Estero 200 feet deep and be located 10 miles south of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Bureau officials like this option because selenium standards for ocean water are much higher than the fresh water standard for the Delta.
Critics point out the pipelines must pass over the San Andreas Fault and could rupture in an earthquake. Coastal dumping could also pollute the coastal food chain causing a fish die-off. Annual operation and maintenance costs for ocean disposal would be nearly $34 million a year. The odds of this proposal in Congress are also considered slim.
3. In-Valley disposal: This plan would keep the drainage water in the San Joaquin and involves various levels of land retirement, selenium removal plants, reverse osmosis treatment to remove other salts and disposal in over 5,000 acres of evaporation ponds. Critics say this plan would cost over $900 million to implement, (much of that for land retirement), unproven selenium treatment technology and creates the same perils for birds and wildlife that Kesterson did.
All the drainage proposals involve retiring at least 44,000 acres of salted up farmland in addition to the nearly 40,000 acres taken out of production as a result of grower lawsuits in recent years.
The cost of partially constructing the San Luis Drain, Kesterson closure and cleanup costs, and post-Kesterson drainage studies have already exceeded an estimated $200 million in taxpayer dollars. The original drainage ditch proposed by the Bureau in 1955 had a price tag of $7.3 billion.
Critics, including Friends of the Trinity River and major national environmental groups, say the Bureau’s EIS failed to consider retiring all the marginal lands, perhaps 300,000 acres or more, in order to reduce the need for drainage at all.
When the EIS is completed, it will be presented to the Federal District Court in Fresno by mid-2006. Any drainage plan selected must still gain the approval of the State Water Resources Control Board and funding must be gained from Congress.