Kesterson Area's Farmers Get Water-Cutoff Reprieve

Times Staff Writer

The Interior Department on Thursday granted a one-year reprieve to growers in Fresno County who were threatened earlier this month with a cutoff of their irrigation water. Contaminated drain water from the farmlands has produced birth deformities and deaths among waterfowl at Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge.

In an announcement that came after 10 days of hectic negotiations, the department said it will continue to provide irrigation water to the 42,000 acres of farmland for the current growing season. In return, the agreement calls for the farmers to gradually eliminate, through a variety of means, the effluents flowing into Kesterson over the next year.

Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel said in Washington that the agreement will assure that "California's agricultural economy will not be jeopardized and environmental concerns are met."

Other government officials said the agreement will allow the affected farmers to begin planting cotton and other crops that have been delayed by the cutoff threat. It has been estimated that the farms produce $40 million to $45 million in crops annually.

Under the terms of the agreement, Kesterson will not be closed immediately, as was announced by Interior Department officials two weeks ago. Rather, the waste water flowing into the marshes of the refuge will be reduced in stages between this September and June, 1986. After the shutdown, a cleanup of the refuge will take place by February, 1988.

At the initial announcement, Interior Department officials said immediate closure of Kesterson was necessary because of possible violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. On Thursday, however, the Justice Department, in a letter to Interior Department officials, described the agreement as an attempt to "remedy contamination at Kesterson" and said it did not foresee any need for enforcement action.

In a statement accompanying the agreement, Hodel said the shutdown schedule "will assure the closure of Kesterson reservoir in a much shorter period of time than if the department had attempted to use its unilateral power and authority." Such unilateral action, the secretary said, would have provoked "protracted, divisive and counterproductive litigation."

The Westlands Water District, which represented the farmers in the negotiations, will be responsible for the gradual reduction in effluent coming from the farms. Federal attorneys said if Westlands does not meet the schedule provided in the agreement, the government can then file suit against the district or assume control of the reduction program.

Widespread Deformities

Contamination problems at Kesterson were first reported in 1983, when biologists for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service discovered widespread deformities in fowl at the refuge. The cause of the deformities was later determined to be selenium, a naturally occurring element brought to the marshes by the San Luis Drain, an agricultural sluice that empties into the refuge.

David G. Houston, regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation, said Westlands will pursue several methods to reduce the agricultural effluent, including the recycling of waste water and the use of evaporation ponds on the farms themselves. The water district has until June to submit its preliminary plan for the reductions.

If all goes well, Houston said, "we can reasonably expect that water delivery will occur in future years to all of Westlands."

Houston referred to Thursday's agreement as an "interim solution" that will give government and farm officials between 5 and 20 years to come up with permanent remedies.

Salts Produced

Deposits of selenium and other metals exist throughout the soils of the western San Joaquin valley. Agricultural drain water produces salts of these metals in huge quantities and has posed pollution problems yet to be solved. Among the long-term possible solutions, Houston said, are desalination of the water, deep-well injection or biological treatment.

Houston said the agreement should also please agricultural bankers, who had threatened to cut off loans to the affected farmers.

"Our understanding is that the banks are satisfied," Houston said.

Times staff writers Zack Nauth in Washington and Mark Gladstone in Sacramento contributed to this story.

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