Landowners Around Poisoned Kesterson Preserve Identified

Times Staff Writer

A legislative report released Friday reveals the owners of 5,000 acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley that are feeding toxic drain water into Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, where high levels of birth deformities have been found in waterfowl.

The report lists 23 "land ownership units" within the sprawling Westlands Water District west of Fresno as the source of selenium-contaminated water flowing into Kesterson. Among the landowners named in the report is Assemblyman William L. Jones (R-Fresno), whose family farms 160 acres in the district.

The farms involved are connected by an underground drainage system to the San Luis Drain, which feeds agricultural waste water into the Kesterson refuge near Los Banos. In late 1982, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists discovered gross abnormalities in large numbers of newborn chicks and later determined the cause to be high levels of selenium in the waste water.

Selenium is a naturally occurring element that exists in several spots in soil throughout the western San Joaquin Valley. Selenium is necessary at low levels for good health but higher levels are known to cause mutations.

'A lot of Questions'

Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda), chairman of the Committee on Policy Research Management, said that the report was prepared because "a lot of questions have been raised about the identities of the landowners. These are the people who will be affected by government decisions at Kesterson, and no one knew whether they were multinational corporations or small family farmers."

The report showed, Katz said, that the ownership is "a little bit of everything. Some small farms, some large."

Virtually all of the owners are individuals or partnerships with 20 to 1,228 acres.

In recent months both federal and state officials have speculated that some of the selenium-laden lands may be retired or temporarily taken out of use to ease the contamination problem. No one knows precisely how much of the western valley may be contaminated, but estimates have ranged from 40,000 to 300,000 acres.

Extreme Cost

On Friday, however, Katz said there is presently "very little" talk about retirement of the lands because of the extreme cost involved. Even if the owners were paid to stop farming, Katz said, many local businessmen would suffer from the decline in economic activity.

Reached at his district office in Fresno, Assemblyman Jones said that his family has farmed in Westlands since 1949. "We hope people understand that no one is dumping poisons in the water," he said. "This is not pesticides, not DDT. Selenium is simply part of the soil."

The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which operated the San Luis Drain, originally planned to connect 49,000 acres in Westlands to the drain. The report estimates that this land currently carries mortgages of $54 million to $64 million and contributes about $544,000 a year in property taxes to Fresno County.

Don Villarejo, the author of the report, estimates that removal of the land from production would cost $150 to $200 per acre annually. "That's just talking about interest on debt and taxes," he said.

Federal Programs Considered

The report also considered the potential of using federal crop programs to lower the number of acres under production in the contaminated area. Such programs encourage farmers to reduce planting of certain surplus crops by paying landowners for each acre taken out of production.

Although cotton is the major crop in the affected area, the report concluded that such programs would have little impact because of limits the federal government places on such subsidies.

Steve Hall of the Land Preservation Assn., a farmers group, said that the solution to the selenium problem will likely come from a combination of programs that will not involve taking land out of production. Those solutions include the use of local ponds for waste water collection and detoxification of contaminated water, he said.

Meanwhile, Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel told a House subcommittee in Washington that his department does not intend to appeal a cleanup order issued by the state Water Resources Control Board for Kesterson Reservoir.

Hodel estimated cleanup costs could range from $30 million to $2 billion.

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