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The Kesterson Quagmire: Farmers Vs. Ducks--Again

February 23, 1986|ALBERT H. MEYERHOFF and LAURA B. KING | Albert H. Meyerhoff is a senior attorney and Laura B. King is a senior scientist with the San Francisco office of the National Resources Defense Council.

It has been nearly a year since "60 Minutes' " graphic footage of dead, deformed and emaciated migratory waterfowl focused national attention on the environmental crisis at the Kesterson Wildlife Refuge in Merced County.

Agricultural waste water contaminated with high levels of selenium and other toxic elements was being transported through the San Luis Drain from the Westlands Water District in the Fresno area, poisoning livestock on ranches adjacent to Kesterson. Some of the toxic wastes had already seeped into one aquifer and threatened another that provides drinking water to much of the San Joaquin Valley.

On March 15, 1985, Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel announced that the Kesterson Reservoir would be closed immediately and no more drainage discharges would be permitted. Hodel said that his department, which operates the refuge, also was turning off the tap on the irrigation water for the 42,000 acres in Westlands that generate the toxic waste draining into Kesterson.

Then Hodel reversed himself. After a series of closed-door negotiations between representatives of the Interior Department, Westlands, bankers and growers, a compromise was reached. Supplies of irrigation water would continue and Westlands would be permitted to discharge its drainage into Kesterson until June 30, 1986.

Now the growers are back, pressing Hodel to reverse himself again and keep Kesterson open for another two years. This time it's not the Westlands Water District that's asking for a break, but the individual growers whose fields drain into Kesterson.

When Westlands signed the agreement with the Interior Department, the district agreed to assume responsibility for finding another method for disposing of the drainage water. Instead Westlands proposed that the water be disposed of in evaporation ponds situated just several miles from another wildlife refuge in Mendota. But this proposal would have cost more than the Westlands board was willing to spend.

Although Westlands belatedly initiated a voluntary conservation program, time ran out, and Westlands now feels that it has little choice but to make good on its promise to reduce drainage.

But a group of growers known as the "Community Alliance for Responsible Water Policy" filed a suit in federal court Friday to keep Kesterson open for two more years--citing the same inaccurate predictions of economic disaster that they trotted out last year.

An environmental impact report prepared by Westlands indicated that plugging the drains would not cause a significant reduction in yields or other negative economic impact on the lands for years. The drains have been in operation for only eight years, while the land has been irrigated for decades. Thus, plugging the drains would not trigger an economic catastrophe. At worst, it would cause a brief marginal drop in productivity while long-term drainage solutions are developed. The pressures would be on the growers--as they should be--to ensure that those solutions are found.

The environmental catastrophe at Kesterson is unquestionable and intolerable. But this is no longer primarily a fight about the environment or wildlife or water. This is now a fight about money. The means are available, through conservation techniques, recycling and selective land retirement, to manage Westlands' drainage problem until environmentally sound solutions are developed.

However, these growers have gotten hooked on cheap, taxpayer-subsidized drainage, (currently only 50 cents per acre-foot), so everyone is looking for someone else to get them off the hook. Those farming the 42,000 acres that drain into Kesterson believe that the costs of drainage should be shared by all growers throughout the 600,000 acres in Westlands. The other Westlands growers disagree.

So, the reasoning goes, let's just keep Kesterson open for another year or two--ignoring the resulting environmental costs, and the threat to drinking water and public health.

After dumping toxic wastes into Kesterson for years and creating an environmental disaster that was conveniently ignored by government officials, growers promised to "reform" if they could only have one more year. They got it, and that ends the matter.

Only a vast effort by agribusiness can effectively address the problem of safe disposal of its toxic waste water. Shuffling waste water from Westlands to Kesterson or some other site where it threatens the environment, or any other fast fix, is no longer viable. No industry, including agriculture, has the right to pollute the state's waters and jeopardize public health in perpetuity.

Hodel should not give in to scare tactics even for "just two more years." He should keep his promise and close Kesterson in June.

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