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Sacramento —A multi-billion dollar Bureau of Reclamation plan to address mounting irrigation-induced pollution in California’s Central Valley is packed with economic, environmental and technical problems, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency memo released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Rather than retire the land producing the drainage contamination, Reclamation is pushing an expensive scheme for agribusiness to assume control and continue irrigation.

One danger is a repeat of an ecological disaster from the early 1980s that went by the name Kesterson. Tens of thousands of grotesquely deformed and dead birds littered the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, poisoned by selenium and other toxics that accumulated in irrigation drainage water from the Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest and most influential irrigator.

In 1985, the Bureau of Reclamation closed the drainage conduits to Kesterson, and Westlands pledged to solve the drainage problem. Twenty years later, that solution still appears elusive. Reclamation’s latest plan relies upon untested technology and an unprecedented privatization of federal water power. In exchange for the San Luis Contractors (which includes Westlands) finally addressing drainage problems, Reclamation proposes increasing water deliveries, forgiving Central Valley debt repayment worth tens of billions of dollars over the next 60 years, and ceding the contractors control of public water facilities.

In an August 21, 2007 memo, EPA Regional Administrator Carolyn Yale outlined several concerns to Reclamation Mid-Pacific Regional Director Frederico Barajas, including –

  • The “current proposal assumes unproven feasibility for complete management, treatment and disposal of drainage on a regional scale”;
  • Likelihood of “unacceptable environmental impacts” such as “continued generation of high volumes of contaminated drainage without the assurance of effective and economic treatment and disposal” and “the potential to yield biologically available organic forms of selenium”; and
  • Significant taxpayer liability since irrigators will not “assume responsibility for the full cost of generating, managing and disposing of agricultural drainage” based upon “cost estimates provided by the districts…substantially below the Reclamation’s calculations” of what is required.

“The Bureau of Reclamation seems to be peddling selenium snake oil,” stated California PEER Director Karen Schambach, noting that Reclamation historically backs irrigator preferences. “The Bureau selenium bio-treatment scenario is simply wishful thinking, unsupported by a shred of credible science.”

The San Joaquin River already suffers from severe selenium effects and is an impaired water body for a 130-mile stretch, reaching down to its delta, Suisun Bay and adjacent marshes. The impacts also extend to the salmon and steelhead of the Sacramento, American, Trinity and Klamath Rivers.

“Left to its own devices, the Bureau of Reclamation will embrace a hugely expensive boondoggle that may result in the mother of all Kestersons,” Schambach warned. “It would be far more effective and ten times less expensive to retire the land and shut off the irrigation pumps.”


Read the EPA memo

See the economic comparison of retiring the land versus other options

Find out more about Bureau of Reclamation’s plans

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