Fresno Bee Opinion- Carolee Krieger: Land retirement solves selenium problem

Carolee Krieger: Land retirement solves selenium problem

Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013 | 11:49 PM

    While The Bee did an admirable job of reporting Feb. 12 on the essential facts of the pilot wastewater-treatment plant under construction near Firebaugh, the story didn't adequately convey the skewed reasoning and colossal waste of taxpayer money that is driving this Rube Goldberg project.

The purpose of the scheme is the removal of selenium in drainwater from western San Joaquin Valley croplands. Western San Joaquin Valley soils are rich in selenium. High levels of this element are toxic to fish and wildlife, and westside agricultural drainwater has been implicated in a series of environmental catastrophes over the past 30 years, most notably the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge debacle of the 1980s.

Ever since Kesterson, drainwater has been a hot-button issue. But there's a ready and reasonably priced solution: land retirement. Indeed, this already is under way. So far, more than 100,000 acres of westside land have been taken out of production. These tracts were so laden with salt from decades of irrigation that farming them was no longer practical.

This low-tech and cost-effective approach would effectively solve all of our drainwater problems. Selenium contamination of the San Joaquin River -- and ultimately, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and San Francisco Bay -- would fall to near zero because drainwater discharges would cease. We would save great quantities of California's most precious natural resource -- water. And large tracts of land would become available for a wide range of alternative uses, including sustainable industries such as solar energy farms.

Not only is this the best approach; according to the U. S. Geological Survey, it's the single effective solution. The agency has stated unequivocally that reducing irrigation is the only way to eliminate drainage problems on the westside.

What's wrong with the Firebaugh plant? Neither state Water Discharge Requirements nor federal Clean Water Act permits have been issued. Both are necessary for a project of this scope.

Nor has the plant's reverse osmosis process been proven effective in removing selenium on a landscape scale. In the end, the plant will produce a heavy, selenium-infused liquid that is so toxic it must be treated like hazardous waste.

In other words, the plant will not remove selenium from the environment; it will merely substitute a concentrated, highly dangerous sludge for the diluted solution that now exists. The disposal problem remains.

Finally, we would be remiss if we did not look at this project from a fiscal perspective. In an era of spiraling government debt, strained budgets and anticipated cuts in both state and federal spending, it is reprehensible to squander millions of dollars on a project that is clearly doomed to fail.

Remember, the $30 million earmarked for this plant is just the beginning. If for some reason the process is approved for broad use, public investment would expand exponentially.

If we are serious about fiscal responsibility, we have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. We can't rail against runaway spending in Washington, then demand federal handouts for boondoggles in our congressional districts.

It would be far better to take that $30 million and use it to purchase waterlogged westside land for fallowing. The price would be right: it's usually pretty easy to strike a reasonable deal for land that can't grow crops. And with each acre that we retire, we would make a truly significant contribution to reducing selenium contamination.

Ultimately, we have to call the Firebaugh treatment plant for what it is: a barrel stuffed with tainted pork, an unconscionable waste of time and taxpayer money. Let's stop the project, save our scant and precious public funds, and move on with the serious business of ending selenium discharges.