U.S. Agency to Close Polluted Bird Refuge : Surprise Kesterson Action Will Cut Irrigation Water to 42,000 Acres of San Joaquin Farmland

Times Staff Writer

The Federal Bureau of Reclamation announced Friday that it will shut down Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in the San Joaquin Valley, where polluted irrigation water has caused widespread birth deformities and deaths among waterfowl.

To accomplish the shutdown, bureau officials said it also will be necessary to terminate the delivery of irrigation water to 42,000 acres of farmland in the valley that are producing the toxic waste water.

Carol Hallett, a special Western representative to Secretary of the Interior Donald P. Hodel, made the surprise announcement to a House subcommittee holding hearings here on the Kesterson issue. Hallett said the bureau does not have an exact timetable for the shutdown, but said it would occur as soon as officials can make the practical arrangements.


Could Cost 1,450 Jobs

David G. Houston, regional director of the bureau, told the subcommittee on water and power resources that a cleanup of Kesterson’s marshes will take place after the waste water stops flowing into the refuge. He estimated that the cost of the cleanup could reach $500 million. The termination of irrigation water to the farmlands could result in the loss of 1,450 jobs in the region, he said.

The affected farms are located in the vast Westlands Water District west of Fresno, which now receives virtually all of its water from federal irrigation projects operated by the bureau. Westlands officials estimate that the 42,000 acres scheduled for termination produce about $40 million to $45 million a year in crops, including cotton, tomatoes and grains.

The announcement produced shock and dismay among several congressmen and an audience made up largely of local farmers. Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), whose district includes the affected area, said he was “appalled” at the decision and asked why congressmen and farming interests had not been consulted before the announcement.

“You didn’t have the decency to discuss this with any of the people involved,” Coelho said to Hallett. “I resent it.”

The impact of the decision on the local region will be severe, Coelho predicted. Without irrigation water supplied by the bureau, farmers will be forced to abandon their crops and will have no way of repaying loans borrowed against those crops, he said.

Bureau officials replied that the decision had been made quickly Thursday evening after the Interior Department solicitor had determined that continued operation of the refuge would constitute a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Under the act, federal officials are responsible for preventing conditions that could lead to the death of waterfowl that migrate through the United States from or to other countries. Violations of the act constitute a criminal offense.

The Kesterson refuge is part of the Pacific Flyway path used by migrating birds. Canada and Mexico are the other partners of the treaty.

‘Criminal Liability’

Reached in Washington, Hodel said the solicitor’s conclusions about the potential violations were “shocking.”

“Whether anyone knew about it or not, it’s strict criminal liability,” he said.

A “hazing” program at Kesterson, designed to scare away waterfowl, has been in effect since last December, but Houston said it has been only partially successful. Some birds have remained and still are falling victim to the toxic waters, he said.

The bureau told the subcommittee that there was some hope that the shutdown would not be permanent. Houston said several alternatives for the disposal of waste water are being considered and conceivably could be implemented later this year, allowing farmers to continue production on their lands. However, Houston also said that cleanup at Kesterson would take a minimum of three to five years to complete.

Jerold Butchert, manager for Westlands, said in an interview that the district likely would file suit immediately to stop the bureau from carrying out its plans. “Our general counsel is on the phone right now,” Butchert said. “I assume the papers are being prepared.”

Broad Repercussions

Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), chairman of the subcommittee, noted that the bureau’s decision could have repercussions for much larger areas of the San Joaquin Valley. Eventually, he said, huge sections of the western part of the valley will face similar problems as they too produce waste water similar to that flowing into the Kesterson refuge.

The problems at Kesterson were first discovered in 1983 when biologists for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found the birth deformities in waterfowl. Eventually the cause was traced to selenium, a naturally occurring element that is harmless in minute quantities but becomes mutagenic in high concentrations.

The selenium, the scientists concluded, was entering the drain water from agricultural soils being served by the San Luis drain. The drain has its terminus at Kesterson.

No one knows just how many acres of the San Joaquin Valley contain selenium in high quantities, but several government agencies are now conducting studies to determine its extent.

According to Butchert, about 300,000 acres of the Westlands Water District alone eventually will be forced to employ some sort of waste water disposal system. Such lands cannot drain naturally because of an impervious layer of clay that underlies the soil.

Hard Blow to Farmers

At the hearing on Friday, several farmers affected by the bureau’s decision said they were effectively put out of business. Jim Gramis, whose family has farmed in Westlands for two generations, said he is now an “ex-farmer.”

“I expect the first call when I get home is going to be from my banker,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m going to tell him. We are not only bankrupt; we are devastated.”

Westlands officials estimate that there are 276 individuals operating 53 farming units in the affected area. They said that some of the farms have access to well water and may be able to survive this year without irrigation supplies from the bureau. However, the number of such farms is not known, the officials said.

A representative of the state’s largest farm group said that farmers will not take the Interior Department decision “lying down.”

“It seems like certainly an unprecedented action to threaten to plug a farmer’s drain line,” said William DuBois of the 100,000-member California Farm Bureau Federation.

“It seems to me that if the Bureau of Reclamation tries any such action that they are putting themselves in line for some very serious economic penalties, because plugging a person’s drain line is tantamount to poisoning his farmland,” DuBois said.

Under questioning, Bureau of Reclamation officials said they had made no decision about the federal government’s obligation to compensate the farmers cut off from their water. A decision is expected soon, they said.

The bureau supplies Westlands with irrigation water under a longstanding contract. Hodel said that the question of whether the farmers are entitled to “declaratory relief” for breach of contract will have to be explored.

MP,Kesterson National Wildlife Refugee,/ Los Angeles Times