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Home-Grown Solution

In the good old days of good old boys with big friends in Washington, the Westlands Water District might well have tried to muddle through its pollution crisis until the big friends bailed out the good old boys once again. Years before anyone knew about selenium and the Kesterson problem, the bail-out for the festering irrigation drainage problem in the San Joaquin Valley was to have been the San Joaquin Drain.

The drain was planned as a concrete river to carry the valley’s salty farm-irrigation runoff 200 miles to the north, where the sludge would be dumped into San Francisco Bay. One stretch was built, terminating at Kesterson Reservoir in Merced County, before the project fell victim to prohibitive cost and the reality of what all that irrigation sewage might do to San Francisco Bay.

The drain idea must have glimmered anew, however, in the minds of some engineers after it was discovered last year that the runoff of selenium into Kesterson was dealing death to the waterfowl that inhabit Kesterson in its dual role of runoff sump and wildlife refuge. It is a tribute to the modern management of Westlands, however, that the district has come up with a creative solution of its own--a series of desalting plants that would turn the polluted runoff into reclaimed water. Better yet, the district would finance the project itself through the sale of the water to urban areas searching wherever they can for new water supplies.

Westlands Manager Jerry Butchert, a former official of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, noted that the old way would have been to wait for the federal government to come up with a solution. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, after all, provides Westlands with its irrigation water. But Butchert said, “We don’t think we can wait.”

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So, in conjunction with (and prodding from) the Environmental Defense Fund, the district has proposed the series of desalting plants to clean up the district’s polluted runoff. All that the district will ask from Congress is a $2-million loan to get the project running as soon as possible. There are considerable problems to overcome, but they probably can be surmounted. If the plants can be built so that the runoff is treated adequately and at reasonable cost, Westlands will have solved an impending environmental crisis. There would be no need for a costly federal bail-out. And some urban area may have a new bonanza of fresh water at less cost than new dams or canals.

Congress should act quickly on Westlands’ loan request, and help demonstrate that the modern ways have it all over the good old days.


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