WASHINGTON — Interior Department officials and San Joaquin Valley farmers are working to fashion an interim plan to irrigate 42,000 acres of farmland this season without draining toxic water into the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, officials said Thursday.
Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) said an interim plan could be announced as early as today. It would allow more than 50 farms threatened by an irrigation cutoff to grow $40 million worth of cotton, tomatoes and cantaloupes for at least one more year, before a long-term solution is found to stem the flow of contaminated drainage water into the refuge.
However, Robert K. Walker, an Interior Department spokesman, said a final decision might not be reached until late next week and that there is "no guarantee" of water for the farms.
"Whatever we do has to be legal and environmentally acceptable," Walker said.
All parties to the negotiations, involving the Interior and Justice departments and the Westlands Water District, which delivers water to area farmers, were asked to keep details of the negotiations secret. However, Jerald Butchert, manager of the water district, said: "We're not going to leave town unless we have an agreement that keeps the water flowing."
The Interior Department shocked area farmers last Friday with the announcement that it was stopping the delivery of irrigation water to the Fresno County farmers. As it irrigates the farmland, the water picks up selenium and other contaminants in the soil. The contaminated drainage water then is carried to the Kesterson refuge via the San Luis Drain.
The Interior Department action came in response to a rising environmental clamor against the poisoning of waterfowl by the selenium at the refuge. The department says that allowing the contaminated water to continue to drain into the refuge violates the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Wilson said that under the emerging plan, the drainage canals feeding Kesterson would be closed. Farmers would probably be asked to recycle the irrigation water and allow it to drain into 3,000 to 4,000 acres of rich farmland converted into holding ponds.
"I think department officials are somewhat embarrassed by what happened last week," Butchert said. "There was no advance warning; I think that was an error on their part."
For now, irrigation water continues to flow. The Interior Department must give Westlands 30 days notice before shutting off the water supply.
Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), who represents the farmers, said he hoped the agreement would come before the weekend, because banks otherwise might cut off credit to the farmers.
"The banks are not going to hold up forever," Coelho said.
A major lender, the Federal Land Bank Assn. of Fresno, has already announced that it will not process new loan applications for the affected farmers "until there is some resolution" to the situation, the Associated Press reported.