When I first interviewed California’s Secretary of Natural Resources John Laird, I was thrilled to meet a man with a great reputation as a conservationist. As a newly-minted reporter, I hoped that he and Gov. Brown would bring positive change to California’s deteriorating environment.
But the conversation quickly shifted from Laird’s life story to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), an expensive scheme to build two tunnels and export more water out of the beleaguered SF-Bay Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast. Laird called the Delta, the “Rubik’s Cube” of water policy for its complexity.
True. I’ve investigated it for more than a year, but it’s really not all that complicated. The Delta’s two primary tributaries are in trouble. The San Joaquin River often runs dry due to excessive diversions, and the Sacramento River is sucked south by two massive pumps sitting in the estuary. The pumps cause rivers to flow backwards and entrap thousands of fish en route to spawn, including salmon, steelhead and smelt.
In a nutshell, the Delta needs more water and less pumping. Why? The Delta is home to more than 750 species of plants and animals, 33 of which are endangered, and likely to go extinct within the next 25 to 50 years, if not sooner, unless flows increase. But by how much? In 2010, the State Water Resources Control Board issued public trust recommendations that showed that flows need to increase by nearly 50 percent to restore the ecosystem. That’s a lot, but it’s possible.
I interviewed scientists. I drove to Southern California and talked to residents who put in dry landscaping. I met farmers who installed drip irrigation systems. I talked to Central Valley irrigation district managers who showed me new technology. I went to water recycling plants and drank purified sewage. In sum, I discovered that we can reduce water use by that much—in fact, there is more “new” water in recycling, conservation and technology, than California regularly exports from the Delta.
But there are major snags. One is Gov. Brown’s leadership; he wants to win an age-old battle to build the latest version of the peripheral canal, which voters soundly rejected years ago. The other is entrenched urban and agricultural interests, which are already refueling Brown’s reelection campaign. On my way to L.A., I noticed signs peppered all over the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley, an alkaline desert that receives a large of portion of Delta water. I’d read that the area had drainage issues, so I got my boots dirty, again—actually my sandals dusty.
I learned that in 1980s, west side drainage water caused massive bird, fish and livestock deformities at Kesterson Reservoir, due to selenium, a naturally occurring mineral, which is toxic in large doses. Selenium can’t be removed nor can it be diluted with more water. It bio-accumulates and works its way up the food chain. The current proposed solution? Filter it into a toxic sludge, and then dispose of it somewhere else. The hard truth? West side farming isn’t suitable for irrigated agriculture in the long run because of the drainage problem, but there are other viable uses for the land, like dry cropping or solar farming, and some land has been retired. Herein lies a potent solution.
Consider that 1.3 million acres on the west side is impaired because of salt and selenium buildup. Gradually retiring these lands might free up nearly 4 million acre-feet of water, which happens to be enough to fulfill the public trust recommendations for flows for the north and south delta. That’s not all the water that’s needed, but it would go a long way. That and effective conservation would solve the primary problems associated with the water supply and the ecosystem.
But BDCP continues to go another direction.
At the last public budget meeting, Dr. David Sunding spoke about a benefit-cost analysis for the tunnels. I wondered how he could justify the project since it’s well-known that conservation is the cheapest way to create new supplies, and the $23 to $50 billion tunnel project won’t increase supplies. I quickly learned that the fundamental assumptions behind Sunding’s budget analysis are so heavily skewed towards the tunnels; they’re essentially false. He assumes that urban water use will increase, and that agriculture use will remain steady. Yet, urban use has declined or remained flat since the 1990s, despite an increase in population. Agriculture demand has also declined, due to improvements in efficiency, among other things.
Instead of dealing straight, the BDCP is trumping up data and attempting to get science to match the tunnel project. It could bolster new industries, create high-paying jobs and preserve one of the most bio-diverse and beautiful places in the country, both its agriculture and its environment. But integrity and honesty would have to take the lead, along with a strong conservation program. Instead, the BDCP is feeding the public false data to build a project that will not serve anyone in the long run.
What happening now? Most immediately, the State Water Board is holding a hearing on Wednesday, March 20 at 9 a.m. in the Coastal Hearing Room, Cal/EPA Building, 1001 Street, Second Floor, Sacramento. The meeting regards the public trust recommendations for Delta flows; the Board is currently considering lowering its standards. Comments can be emailed to email@example.com by March 29, 2013. Include “Comment Letter – Bay Delta Plan SED” in the subject line.
The next BDCP meeting is also on March 20. It begins at 1:30 p.m. at the Ramada in West Sacramento, on 1250 Halyard Drive.
Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.—E. F. Schumacher
Selenium is Still Leaking into the San Joaquin River
Chris Eacock stands with his hands on his hips and looks out over the Central Valley’s sunny expanse of farms and wetlands and tries to explain the situation. As a natural resource specialist for the Bureau of Reclamation for the past 30 years, he began his career doing soil surveys and handling grazing leases on Bureau-owned land. Today, he manages the tougher side of that equation, the tainted drainage water now coming from farms. Salt and selenium from irrigated land on the west side of the valley have poisoned wetlands, damaged ground water and rendered farms unproductive. Eventually, the waste reaches the San Joaquin River and flows into the Bay-Delta, endangering wildlife and the state’s water supply.
Eacock insists that the situation has improved. “There is less pollution, people are still in business, and we’re all still talking to each other out here,” he said.
But more than a few are critical. “The discharges have gone down significantly, and they get a lot of credit for that,” said Tom Stokely, water policy analyst with the California Water Impact Network. “But there is still contamination happening in the wildlife refuges, and there is virtually an unlimited supply of selenium in those soils.”
In high concentrations, selenium is toxic to fish, livestock, humans and birds.
On the west side of the San Joaquin River, an area of large farms and agribusinesses stretch from Bakersfield to Patterson. The land, about 1.2 million acres, was once an alkaline desert, a sagebrush basin filled with coyotes, foxes, fish and watering holes. The city of Los Banos, in its center, was called the baths in reference to the artesian pools that once existed near the area. But in the 1960s, state and federal projects brought water to the desert via the construction of large reservoirs, water pumping facilities and canals. The Central Valley now has a complex network of interconnected channels and irrigation districts that move water all over the state.
The west side’s warm climate is great for year-round growing, but the land is also naturally rich in salt and selenium, and irrigating it creates a waste water problem and land-use issue, as salt and selenium progressively build up in the soil.
To address this, the Bureau began constructing the San Luis Drain in 1968; it was supposed to ship agricultural waste water to the Delta and the ocean. Instead, the drain was partially constructed and ended at Kesterson Reservoir, north of Los Banos and within a national wildlife refuge. The continuous flow of selenium tainted water poisoned bird, livestock and aquatic life, and in 1984, bird deformities were discovered there.
Kesterson was filled and the drain was closed, but since then, farming has continued on the west side, and selenium has continued to flow into the Grasslands Ecological Area, a 370,000-acre parcel that is the also largest freshwater wetland ecosystem in California. Most of the contamination now comes from the Grassland Drainage Area (GDA)—97,000 acres of irrigated farms within Charleston Drainage District, Pacheco Water District, Panoche Drainage District, part of the Central California Irrigation District (CCID), and Firebaugh Canal Water District.
After Kesterson closed, the drainage flowed into Salt Slough and Mud Slough, and then it flowed into the San Joaquin River. (Sloughs are swampy waterways.)
Today, the drainage water mostly flows into Mud Slough, but discharges are still regularly 5 to10 times higher than recommended by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Eacock says this is still an improvement, “We’ve done better than expected,” he said. “The EPA and the Regional Board established the metrics, and the grasslands area farmers are meeting those limits.” The EPA has removed several water bodies from its impaired waters list, including Salt Slough in 2008 and three segments of the San Joaquin River, and declared the program a success. But the waste is still flowing into Mud Slough via the Grassland Bypass Project (GBP), which is a comprehensive plan to address the problem.
According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Report and the analysis of Dr. Dennis Lemly, a USDA biologist, specializing in contaminants and aquatic ecosystems, the current selenium concentrations in the San Joaquin River put juvenile salmon and steelhead at risk. Lemly writes, “USBR wants it both ways, to identify a problem and then say there is no problem. The correct conclusion is that available data and a reasonable interpretation of it clearly show that significant risks of substantial selenium toxicity exist, which will not be eliminated or substantially lessened by the GBP.”
He continues, “The success of salmon reintroduction depends on good water quality, and the selenium is going to create a significant hazard for those fish. It has to be below 2 parts per billion, anything above that endangers fish. In this case, because of bioaccumulation, the solution to pollution is not dilution. We have known this for decades. This is no secret. They have to stop the selenium at the source.”
That is the plan—eventually. By 2019, discharges to Mud Slough and the San Joaquin River are supposed to be eliminated altogether, with fees charged per pound of selenium over the limit beginning in 2015. That limit, however, is still 5 parts per billion, more than double the recommended amount.
Westside Farming Salting Up – Is There a Cost-effective Solution?
On a larger scale, the Bureau is under court order to provide drainage to the entire San Luis Unit, which includes part of the Grasslands area and Westlands Water District, which is the largest water district in the nation. The current plan includes land retirement, drainage reuse facilities, treatment systems and evaporation ponds.
But it has significant problems. First, it’s pricey.
The official Bureau estimate of the capital cost is $2.6 billion. However, the total taxpayer cost could be more than $7 billion. The annualized cost is estimated at $141 million for 50 years.
“Their own report shows that the project fails most of their standard benefit-cost tests by a wide margin,” said Dr. Jeffrey Michael, Director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific. “It is absurdly expensive, but it really isn’t optional as the courts have ruled that the government is obligated to provide drainage according to the 1960 Act.”
Notably, the money hasn’t been appropriated by Congress; new legislation is required for that. Instead, only $364 million (or 5 to 14 percent of the total) remain from the original authorization.
Second, the plan doesn’t entirely fix the environmental problems caused by selenium and salt. The minerals will have to go somewhere. But where? Some suggest that more land retirement is a better alternative than trying to manage the waste. Lawsuits have ensued; the farming community is demanding drainage service, and the environmental community is calling for discharges to stop. In addition, according to a National Academy of Sciences report on Bay-Delta stressors, the latest version of the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan may increase exports to the area and exacerbate conditions.
No clear resolution is in sight.
A few, frustrated after 30 years of political wrangling and litigation, have stepped up and decided to deal with the issue directly, individually. One of them is Westlands Farmer, John Diener. “The question is, how are we going to solve this problem?” Diener said. “The Bureau of Reclamation is in the middle of this political situation, and everyone goes back and forth, and nothing is happening. So let’s get something done here.”
Diener is getting something done on his own land, Red Rock Ranch in Five Points, CA, located southeast of Fresno; he farms about 3,000 acres of fruit and vegetable crops including almonds, grapes, wheat, alfalfa, tomatoes, onions, garlic and spinach. The combination of continuous irrigation and poor drainage has resulted in concentrated levels of salinity and selenium in the soils. Trapped irrigation water forms a shallow, or perched, water table. With nowhere to go, the salty water rises closer to the surface towards the root zone and affects the fertility of the soil. In Westlands Water District, more than 200,000 acres have saline groundwater within 10 feet of the soil surface. More than 100,000 acres have already been retired.
Diener manages a 640-acre parcel on his ranch that has no discharge at all. He uses a subsurface drain tile system that leaches salt out of the soil and water table, and then returns land to production. The drainage water is then re-cycled several times to irrigate blocks of increasingly salt-tolerant plants (halophytes), such as wheat grass and prickly pear cactus.
“Ultimately, the goal is not exposing the drain water to the community at large, whatever that is – the ducks, people or whatever. It’s a matter of how we treat resources that we have at our disposal and how we manage those things for the best benefit of everybody,” Diener said.
But the situation is anything but easy. “We need to find a way to keep the land productive, but that becomes difficult when you have environmental concerns stemming from soils with naturally high levels of these mineral deposits,” said Dr. Gary Bañuelos, an Agricultural Research Service plant/soil scientist. “We’re hoping to produce crops on unproductive land with minimum water and slowly manage the selenium content out the soil.”
Still, there is no way with typical plants that sufficient quantities of selenium can be removed. All the selenium does is regenerate from a deeper soil depth and slowly migrate towards the surface, Bañuelos added. “Instead, we’re changing the perception that these soils are not useful,” he said.
Prickly pear cactus, a salt-tolerant crop, naturally produces antioxidant rich fruit and adding selenium makes it even healthier. (Selenium is essential to good health in small amounts.) But even with mineral absorption from cacti and other salt-loving plants, eventually, it all gets super concentrated, and Diener ends up with a big pile of salt on his ranch, which is the case for many farms on the west side. Water supplied by the federal and state projects brings the equivalent of 40 railroad cars of salt into the area every day, about 4,000 tons of salt daily.
Diener hopes to sell the excess salt to glass producers, since sodium ash is used in the glass manufacturing process. “The glass factory in Madera needs 20 tons a day, and we can generate that in a minute,” Diener said. “The idea is make the waste into marketable products.”
The next article in this series looks at the big picture – how California’s water plans and projects fit together or don’t.