U.S. Water News Online
FRESNO, Calif. -- Under court pressure to come up with a
plan to drain brackish water from the 605,000-acre Westlands Water
District, the federal government filed documents recently saying it
could have a solution -- in four more years.
The Bureau of Reclamation's plan, filed in U.S. District Court in
Fresno, says the agency would begin an evaluation of "viable drainage
alternatives" with "a record of decision by 2005." In September, U.S.
District Judge Oliver W. Wanger ended 15 years of legal wrangling by
ordering the bureau to come up with a plan to dispose of the tainted
Forty years ago, the idea was to build an 87-mile drain to remove
the tainted water from Westlands, and that alternative remains a part
of the bureau's plan filed with the court. In addition to the drain,
which was considered the least expensive alternative when it was
first proposed, a second alternative would be a series of evaporation
Early 1990s estimates for the cost of the drain were $810 million,
according to bureau estimates. The evaporation ponds were estimated
to cost $1.5 billion, including wildlife-protection measures.
When the San Luis water project first brought water to the
Valley's west side in the 1960s, experts knew the water would pass
through the topsoil and carry salt and minerals with it, settling on
a shallow clay layer below the surface. They also knew that when the
dirty water reached high into the root zones, the land would be
worthless for farming.
So, for several years in the late 1970s and 1980s, Westlands sent
drainage from 42,000 acres into the San Luis Drain. The water went to
western Merced County at Kesterson Reservoir in the late 1970s and
The Kesterson project turned into a wildlife disaster, killing and
disfiguring thousands of birds, and was discontinued in the
mid-1980s. After the closure, legal action flowed from the west side.
Environmentalists and Northern Californians have continuously
opposed completing the drain or even reopening it for Westlands. They
don't want the drain water in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta or San
Even after Kesterson was closed, Westlands -- which contracts for
1.15 million acre-feet of water annually from the federal Central
Valley Project -- has continued to deliver water for farmers in the
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