An ongoing cleanup: Westside farmers work to solve toxic problem

Farmers west of Firebaugh have spent millions of dollars over the past 14 years to cut 90 percent of the contaminated irrigation water flowing from beneath their fields of tomatoes, garlic and cotton.

But the clock runs out in December on the cleanup program, called the Grassland Bypass Project. Farmers in the Grassland Drainage Area need permission from the federal government to finish the job and eliminate all the toxic drainage, which can poison land and wildlife.

But some environmentalists have doubts. Some even question whether farming should be allowed on land with such problems, even though agriculture generates an estimated $330 million for the local economy.

Lloyd Carter, a board member with the activist group California Water Impact Network, noted that the government ordered the cleanup of this region in 1985.

"Here we are 24 years later, and we're still talking about it," said Carter, a Clovis resident. "That's ridiculous." Farm officials say they are on the brink of a historic breakthrough -- building and testing a treatment plant to dispose of the remaining drainage from their land. Such remedies have been unsuccessful in the past.

"With the plans we have, we're going to take our drainage down to zero," said Dennis Falaschi, general manager of Panoche Water and Drainage District. "Nothing will be going out to the river. We're confident." If the treatment plant works, it could serve as a model for much larger farm areas of the west San Joaquin Valley where the bad water problem persists.

The environmental review of the 10-year extension has been produced for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Comments on the review can be made in person at a Feb. 10 hearing in Los Banos.

The California Water Impact Network and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance will submit their criticisms of the project, but not all environmentalists feel the same.

The Environmental Defense Fund, a national group that has been critical of west San Joaquin Valley farming, has supported the project for years.

EDF senior counsel Tom Graff said he respects the objections of the Water Impact Network and the Sportfishing Protection Alliance, but his group still backs the project.

"There are big, contentious water issues in California," Graff said. "This is not one of them." For farming to continue this century on the west side, options will be needed to dispose of used irrigation water on an estimated 200,000 acres of poorly drained crop fields.

The Grassland-area growers, who farm 97,400 acres between Firebaugh and Interstate 5, have eliminated the drainage problem on all but about one-third of their acreage over the past 14 years, officials said.

Westlands Water District, south of the Grassland project, faces similar problems on land several times larger, but the district has no solution yet. One government cleanup idea includes broad land retirement at a cost of more than $2 billion.

Falaschi said the Grassland farmers so far have spent about $100 million, about half of which was government funded. They've eliminated 85 percent of the selenium, a natural element that is toxic in high concentrations, and nearly 75 percent of the salt level that flowed into the San Joaquin River in 1995.

"If we hadn't done it, we would have been out of business," he said, because the drainage water would have begun poisoning their fields.

The problem is that the water won't percolate deep into the underground. Instead, it perches on clay layers, allowing contaminants to build up and eventually foul the land. It must be drained away and somehow disposed of safely.

This year, Grassland farmers propose to spend $4 million from a state grant to build and test the treatment plant.

They were forced into the cleanup in the 1980s after government wildlife officials found dead and deformed birds at Kesterson Reservoir. The wildlife disaster was created by toxic levels of selenium in irrigation drainage funneled from Westlands through the San Luis Drain, a concrete-lined canal.

Authorities closed the federal drain and set thresholds for selenium in the area streams. Westlands lost its outlet for the bad water and still is working to find an adequate disposal method.

At the time, the Grassland farmers had been sending their irrigation drainage to the San Joaquin River in canals and sloughs that passed through protected areas, such as San Luis National Wildlife Refuge.

With new selenium standards in place, they lost that option.

They needed a new way to dispose of the bad water without further contaminating the refuges. And they would have to eventually clean up the bad water before it got to the river.

Within a few years, they made a bold proposal: With proper oversight and controls, why not reopen part of the San Luis Drain to send it to the river? Environmentalists and government wildlife agencies didn't like the idea at all.

To get this seemingly unlikely proposal on the table, Grassland farm officials started talking to obvious opponents -- environmentalists and wildlife agencies. They hammered out guidelines under which opponents would support reopening the drain.

The Environmental Defense Fund and the Bay Institute were among those that joined the process. Their questions were answered with cleanup promises from the Grassland farmers.

Years later, the Water Impact Network and the Sportfishing Protection Alliance say the Grassland project has not brought the region into compliance with water standards that apply to the San Joaquin River. They suggest tighter standards on the river and more oversight by the state.

Project officials reply that the Grassland farmers have dramatically reduced the amount of drainage they were sending to the river. They met their obligations under the agreement hammered out to reopen the drain, they said.

To reduce drainage, about half the Grassland farm acreage now has stingy drip irrigation or sprinklers instead of water-intense irrigation, such as filling furrows with water. Less water means less drainage.

Officials further reduce bad water by capturing the drainage in collector systems beneath crop fields or pumping it out of the shallow groundwater table. The bad water then is mixed with fresher water and used again on crops.

The next generation of brackish water is captured again and reused on salt-tolerant crops, such as Jose tall wheatgrass.

The Grassland project now reduces 40,000 acre-feet of bad water each year to about 4,000 acre-feet. One acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons of water, or an 18-month supply for an average Valley family.

Farmers also agreed to pay fines if they didn't reduce the drainage and the contamination year by year. The fines added up to about $250,000 over the past five years, mostly because big storms caused runoff that no one could control.

Though the surrounding habitat has improved, wildlife still has elevated levels of selenium, according to federal officials.

Grassland project officials say they monitor the wildlife and create islands of fresh water in other areas to attract wildlife and help keep them away from potentially harmful areas.

"We are very aware of the wildlife," said engineer Joseph McGahan, who works on the project. "In the 6,000 acres where we reuse drainage water on salt-tolerant crops, there were only six bird nests last year. At Kesterson in the 1980s, there were 240 nests on 1,200 acres. That's a big difference."