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Plan for Central Valley farm drainage advances

Congress must still give final approval and could significantly alter the controversial proposal.

March 10, 2007|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer

About 150,000 acres of San Joaquin Valley farmland would be taken out of irrigated crop production as part of a costly plan, initially funded by taxpayers, to deal with the problem of poorly drained cropland belonging to farmers on the valley's west side.

The $2.4-billion federal plan, detailed in a report released Friday, also calls for the construction of facilities to treat contaminated drainage, despite warnings by federal wildlife officials that the treatment itself could result in the deaths of thousands of migratory birds.

The plan, selected from among several alternatives by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and approved by Interior Secretary Dick Kempthorne, is not the end of the matter. Most of the land lies in the Westlands Water District, which is promoting an alternative proposal. And either one would require the approval of Congress, which could draft its own version.

"What Congress decides will be completely different," predicted Tom Graff of Environmental Defense, an advocacy group that has criticized the bureau's plan.

The cost of the project would at first be borne by taxpayers, but bureau spokesman Jeffrey McCracken said that under reclamation law, growers would have to repay the federal government over a period of decades.

The bureau is under a federal court order to provide a drainage system for lands with a high water table that hurts crop production.

The project would do that by eliminating drainage on nearly 200,000 acres of farmland through the purchase of irrigation rights from growers, ending any watering of those fields. The Westlands district has already "retired" about 44,000 acres.

To treat tainted water drained from land left in irrigation, more than 2,000 acres of evaporation ponds would be built, along with 12,500 acres of reuse areas -- where the amount of drain water would be reduced by applying it to crops.

The construction of the ponds, along with the reuse areas, has raised concerns of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists, who fear the plan would repeat the kind of devastation experienced at Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge.

Birds feeding on drainage ponds at Kesterson were poisoned by high levels of selenium found in the water, which picks up the naturally occurring chemical element from farm soils.

To avoid the need for potentially hazardous treatment facilities, fish and wildlife officials urged the Reclamation Bureau to adopt a plan that would retire virtually all of the land with drainage problems, roughly 300,000 acres.

But McCracken said his agency wanted to keep as much land as possible in production to avoid job and economic losses in the San Joaquin Valley, the heart of California agriculture.

The evaporation ponds and reuse areas, McCracken argued, can be built so they are not attractive to birds.

"It's different" from Kesterson, he said.

The plan can be found on the bureau's website, www.usbr.gov/mp/.

bettina.boxall@latimes.com

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