Tom Stokely: Ending Selenium Pollution of the San Joaquin River and Bay-Delta

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Imagine that a heavily subsidized industry puts thousands of pounds of toxic pollutants into groundwater and surface water and then argues that while they have had 14 years to avoid meeting water quality standards, they want almost another decade because they don’t have the public financing or the technology to treat their pollution. Well, it’s all right here in California’s western San Joaquin Valley.
 
See C-WIN's Media Advisory on the upcoming selenium waivers here.
 
Located between Los Banos and Firebaugh along the west side of the San Joaquin River, Grasslands-area irrigators could be permitted to continue dumping agricultural drainage water highly contaminated with selenium into the river via its tributary Mud Slough in violation of state selenium water quality objectives. Their disposal system is called the Grasslands Bypass Project. Despite the toxic character of the runoff, the Grasslands irrigators have been exempt from meeting water quality objectives for selenium since 1996!
 
Selenium is a trace element that humans, other mammals, and birds, all need in small amounts to maintain good health, but too much at even modestly elevated levels can cause horrific health and reproductive problems. Symptoms of selenosis (disease caused by too much selenium in the diet) can include garlic breath, gastrointestinal disorders, hair loss, nail loss, fatigue, irritability, and neurological damage. Severe selenosis can result in pulmonary edema, cirrhosis of the liver, and death. 
 
C-WIN recently wrote and submitted comments representing a coalition of 18 good government, tribal, angling, and environmental groups including C-WIN, opposing a water quality basin plan amendment to extend for 9 years and 3 month their Grasslands Bypass Project.
 
The Bypass project shunts polluted drainwater around the lands of the Grasslands Water District and uses a portion of the San Luis Drain, which formerly sent Westlands Water District’s polluted farm runoff to Kesterson Wildlife Refuge where so many migratory bird deformities were discovered in the 1980’s, to move the sewage to the San Joaquin River via Mud Slough.  While Kesterson no longer receives toxic runoff, the selenium built up in the aquifers downslope of Westlands and its neighbors, and now drains into Mud Slough, the San Joaquin River, the Delta and the San Francisco Bay
 
Back in early 2001, the Grassland drainers promised they would meet the state’s San Joaquin River and Mud Slough water quality objectives for selenium by October 31, 2010. These objectives are 5 parts per billion (ppb) over a 4 day average. Unfortunately, agricultural drainage discharged from the San Luis Drain into Mud Slough contains 54 ppb (30 day average) of selenium. If the basin plan amendment is approved, selenium contamination of the slough and the river would be allowed to continue largely unabated until December 31, 2019.
 
Basin plan amendments to the Sacramento/San Joaquin water quality control plan must first be considered by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, followed by its parent agency the State Water Resources Control Board. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will have final say over whether the unproven treatment technology proposed by the Grasslands drainers will be allowed to justify over 9 more years of toxic discharges to the San Joaquin, the Delta and San Francisco Bay.
 
Birds, frogs, snakes, fish and other critters in and near the Grasslands reuse area where drainage water is concentrated are bioaccumulating high levels of selenium, so much so that the eggs of shorebirds actually have higher levels of selenium than were found in the same bird eggs at Kesterson in the 1980’s! Selenium is also bioaccumulating in clams, open water birds, and other estuary species in Suisun Bay and San Francisco Bay. The legacy of the Kesterson poisoning continues, too quietly.
 
Because of the Grasslands Bypass Project and other interim actions taken by western San Joaquin Valley irrigators, it has been tempting to believe that the selenium problem went away when Kesterson was sealed and agricultural drains of the Westlands Water District to the south of Grasslands were plugged in the late 1980s. They couldn’t be more wrong. 
 
Plugging the drains simply made the perched water table rise up in west side soils, along with its witch’s brew of selenium, mercury, salt, boron and other harmful substances until it is now within a few feet of the soil surface.  Much of the Grasslands Bypass Project’s supposed progress results from diverting the pollution around neighboring farms, wildlife refuges, and duck clubs, and either passing on the pollution directly to the river, the Delta, and the Bay or storing and concentrating it in the west side’s shallow groundwater. These practices will only hasten ruination of these lands for any future cultivation, either irrigated or dry-land (that is, rainfall-only) farming. There is no way to irrigate these poisonous lands without mobilizing selenium and other contaminants.
 
This selenium contamination will be with us for a long time, anyway. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) determined that even if new selenium were not added to the aquifers of the western San Joaquin Valley by ceasing irrigation, it would still take 63-304 years to drain the accumulated selenium IF the San Luis Drain were completed to the San Francisco Bay, and the Grasslands drainers were allowed to increase their dumping rate over eight times the current amount of selenium discharged from Mud Slough to the Bay/Delta every year! With all federal and state water plans in California calling for more (not less) water to irrigate these poisonous lands, it’s clear that current policies are creating a trans-generational Superfund site of selenium and other toxins in the aquifers of the western San Joaquin Valley.
 
These heavily subsidized farmers do not have public funding or technology to treat their contaminated waste, such as through a reverse osmosis system. If regulators decide to allow the Grasslands drainers by approving the basin plan amendment, they would willfully ignore the significant impacts downstream. For example:
 
-          Continued discharges of selenium into the San Joaquin River will doom efforts to restore salmon and steelhead. Dr. Dennis Lemly,  Research Professor of Biology at Wake Forest University in Winston/Salem, North Carolina, determined that these selenium discharges kill up to half of all juvenile salmon and steelhead in the San Joaquin River—and there aren’t very many to begin with!
-          Ending irrigation on these toxic farms was not even considered, even though the USGS has stated, “Land retirement is a key strategy to reduce drainage because it can effectively reduce drainage to zero if all drainage-impaired lands are retired.”
-          Mud Slough produces half of the methylated mercury in the San Joaquin River system, but only 10 percent of the flows during the non-irrigation season.
-          Mud Slough produces about a third of the salt load found in the San Joaquin River at Vernalis, further stressing the Delta and Suisun Bay.
-          Bureau of Reclamation economic analyses show that the proposed reverse osmosis and other treatment systems will cost more than the benefits, and that land retirement is the most cost effective option.
 
What other industry gets this kind of break from pollution laws? If the rest of us polluted even a small amount of ground or surface waters, you bet that the various regulatory industries would come down hard on us because we don’t have powerful lawyers and politicians on our side.
 
The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board will be holding a hearing to consider approving the 9+ year time extension on May 27 in Rancho Cordova. I’ll be there to argue the case that polluting the San Joaquin River, the Delta and the Bay with selenium in order to continue to support heavily subsidized farming is not in the best interests of the people of California. 
 
I hope that you will join me at the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board’s hearing on May 27. I can be reached at tstokely@att.net.