Last October, in a Gristmill guest essay, Lloyd G. Carter described attempts by agribiz interests in California’s powerful Westlands Water District to suck more subsidized water out of California’s rivers.  Now the District is locked in another battle — this one over toxic soil — that could end up costing taxpayers $1 billion. Bill Walker, west coast VP of the Environmental Working Group, explains.


In a repeat of a scheme that led to one of the worst wildlife disasters in the nation’s history, federal water bureaucrats are on the brink of a decision that could kill thousands of migratory birds in California’s San Joaquin Valley each year — and will cost taxpayers $1 billion.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which delivers heavily subsidized irrigation water to farms in the Central Valley Project, is weighing options for the future of 379,000 acres plagued with with highly saline soil and poor drainage. The Bureau is negotiating with landowners behind closed doors, and a decision is expected soon.

The cheapest and safest alternative is to “retire” the land by taking it out of production. But most of the tainted acreage lies in the politically powerful Westlands Water District, whose corporate megafarmers get hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of taxpayer-subsidized water each year to grow cotton and other crops on land never suited for irrigation in the first place.

Westlands wants to keep as much land as possible in production. The Bureau proposes retiring more than half of the district. No matter how much is retired, the government is committed to building a drainage system to carry toxic runoff from the remaining acreage to holding ponds.

But that’s already been tried, with tragic results.

The salinity and poor drainage of what is now Westlands has been known since the 1880s. In 1963, when the district joined the Central Valley Project — a move ex-Bureau chief Floyd Dominy later called “a terrible mistake” — the government promised to build a drain to carry wastewater to evaporative ponds. But the drain became a death trap.

Soils in the western San Joaquin Valley are loaded with selenium, a usually benign element that in high concentrations is deadly to animals and people. The drain carried the poison to Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in Merced County, where it concentrated in the shallow waters and aquatic plants.

In 1982, Kesterson scientists discovered startling numbers of bird hatchlings with grotesque deformities. More than 1,000 waterfowl died. To stop the carnage, the drain was shut down and the ponds covered over.

But the drainage problems remained. Westlands sued. In 2000 a federal court ordered the Bureau to keep its promise: Provide drainage or buy out the land.

Neither option, or any combination, will be cheap. The Bureau says its plan, retiring 308,000 acres, would cost $918 million. Retiring less land but building a larger drain, as Westlands wants, would cost $828 million. The option apparently not on the table — retiring all the land — would cost $725 million, and avoid costs of inevitable construction overruns, operating the drain, and the incalculable loss of wildlife.

This time, the Bureau says it will treat the wastewater to reduce the selenium, leaving a concentration in the ponds of 10 parts per billion. But the selenium level recommended as safe for wildlife by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is one to two parts per billion. At 10 ppb, Fish and Wildlife warns, several thousand birds will die each year.

Westlands’s growers will be legally obliged to pay the drain’s operating costs and pay back the cost of building it. But they’ll be excused from paying interest on the construction cost, handing them a free loan worth millions of dollars a year. History suggests they may also be slow repaying the principal: Of the $1 billion in Central Valley Project costs irrigators were supposed to repay, by 2002 — almost 60 years after the water started flowing — the water districts had paid back 11 percent.

But Westlands is accustomed to taking taxpayers’ money. Environmental Working Group’s conservative calculations from state and federal data show that in 2002 the district’s growers received a water subsidy worth an estimated $110 million at market rates. That year 40 percent of Westlands farmers were “double dippers,” also receiving $22.5 million in crop subsidies, mostly for cotton.

Spending taxpayer dollars to grow surplus crops on toxic soil is a bad investment. Spending $1 billion on a plan that led to environmental catastrophe is madness. The Bureau should retire all the tainted land.