USGS critiques feds' water deals with farmers
U.S. Water News Online
FRESNO, Calif. — A new report by the U.S. Geological Survey suggests the federal government's plans to clean up acres of polluted croplands where thousands of birds died in the 1980s could, if poorly managed, put shore birds at risk again.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein has been brokering negotiations over the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's proposals, which are intended to fix a botched federal drain project that left fields in California's San Joaquin Valley too salty to grow crops.
Two weeks ago, Feinstein met behind closed doors in San Francisco's Ferry Building with bureau officials and the two USGS scientists who wrote the internal report the senator requested.
A copy obtained by The Associated Press critiques a proposal previously floated by the bureau. That plan would give a group of wealthy farmers a perpetual contract for irrigation water if they took on the cost of the clean up, which is estimated at more than $2.6 billion.
The bureau is considering using a new technology — a solar evaporation system — to separate harmful selenium concentrations from the runoff.
"However, at this concentration there still may be a potential for selenium risk to wildlife, if performance does not meet specific criteria," the report said.
Feinstein's staff said the Democratic senator had since written the bureau's Sacramento director to ask how the agency planned to reduce threats to birds.
She cited data in the report showing that eggs of two shore birds collected in 2006 at a pilot facility that recycles the runoff contained more than nine times the level of selenium the government says represents a high risk for deformity.
"The USGS presents data that pilot projects ... have caused instances of selenium in bird eggs substantially above the 10 parts per billion threshold for substantive risk," Feinstein wrote in a letter. "This is a very serious concern."
Mike Finnegan, an area manager for the bureau's central California area office, said he could not comment on concerns about the contaminated eggs.
Once managers at the Panoche Drainage District discovered the eggs, they immediately, permanently closed the open drains where avocets and stilts were nesting, state officials said.
Finnegan said the agency was developing a flexible approach to safeguard waterfowl in its official proposal, as well as in a second, competing proposal drawn up by the Westlands Water District, a coalition of giant lettuce, citrus and tomato growers in the fertile valley.
The pilot recycling projects are slated to be expanded in both, and designs are still being finalized.
"We want be responsive to ensure we have an effective, adaptive approach and make sure we're not causing undue damage to the environment," he said. "We also acknowledge that treatment at this scale has not be totally tested or proven."
Westlands' general manager and general counsel Tom Birmingham said the agency was prepared to spend the $700 million he estimated it would cost the private sector to fix the vexing problem, and would keep a close watch to ensure wildlife was protected.
"These techniques can work to manage drain water in an environmentally responsible way," Birmingham said. "With adaptive management, if you discover a problem you can take immediate action to correct it."
Farmers and the federal government have been fighting over the drainage mess since the 1980s, when thousands of birds died and were born without limbs after nesting in ponds of contaminated irrigation water.
After the disaster, land managers at the Kesterson Wildlife Refuge, some 80 miles northeast of Fresno, covered up the evaporation ponds with dirt, and wild birds flocked back to the region, a popular stopover on the Pacific flyway.
Powerful agribusinesses sued, claiming the federal government was responsible for cleaning up the cropland polluted by the runoff.
Decades later, the bureau — which runs a massive irrigation complex that makes farming possible in the arid Central Valley — remains under a federal court order to dispose of the tainted water.
Biologists, water districts and growers alike have tried dozens of innovative approaches to get rid of the runoff that collects after farmers irrigate their crops.
In May, Feinstein requested that the USGS comment on the contractors' proposal, but didn't publicly release the results until the AP's story.
Growing crops on fewer acres of land is one option explored in the USGS report.
But growers say fallowing fields would rob them of their livelihoods and cause major job losses throughout the region. Given the huge expense required to fix the drainage problem, farmers say they need a permanent water contract to ensure their financial viability, and to keep growing the fruits and vegetables the nation relies on.
Westlands and other water districts propose to fix the problem by shooting the polluted runoff through a sprinkler system that would allow the salts to solidify and be collected.
The report critiqued that proposal, and another to build the solar evaporation systems, calling them untested options that had not been proven to work at the scale required.
If necessary, Finnegan said the government would complete additional environmental reviews of the reuse projects, the sprinklers and other new techniques.
The study also suggested farmers boost the water they draw from groundwater aquifers to lower the amount of selenium brought into the environment.
Several retired federal scientists and environmental groups excluded from the San Francisco meeting hailed the report as an important step toward broadening the scientific debate.
"The science doesn't add up. They government doesn't have the answers," said Edgar Imhoff, a former top drainage official at the Department of Interior who also served as a hydrologist at the USGS. "If they go ahead with their plan, this report shows there are a lot of uncertainties that it will ever work out."
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