State Orders U.S. to Start Cleanup at Kesterson

Times Staff Writer

The state Water Resources Control Board on Thursday unanimously rejected the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's plan for a gradual cleanup of the Kesterson Reservoir near Los Banos and ordered the federal agency to begin excavating the site.

The reservoir, part of the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, has been a stopping place for migratory birds and is home to several threatened species. Toxic levels of selenium, a naturally occurring substance that accumulates in agricultural drainage, is believed responsible for death and deformities among waterfowl and other wildlife found at Kesterson.

Environmentalists hailed the board's action.

The board requires the bureau by August, 1988, to dispose of contaminated soil and vegetation at Kesterson within a sealed toxic dump to be constructed at the wildlife refuge. In contrast, the Bureau of Reclamation proposed flooding the area in an experiment intended to lock the selenium in the soil. Critics contended that the selenium would be ingested by tiny organisms in the sediment and would eventually be released into the environment.

Under the federal proposal, only if its experiment failed to produce results by 1992 would the bureau implement the more drastic measures advanced by the state.

But the state rejected that idea and voted 5 to 0 for more costly and immediate action.

In addition, the Bureau of Reclamation will be required to monitor the dump site for leaks and to provide alternative wetland areas for wildlife, but the board left the details of that to the Central Valley Regional Board, which enforces state and federal clean water laws on a local level. The state Water Resources Control Board serves as kind of a parent agency to the regional board.

The cost of the more rapid cleanup could reach $50 million--including $24.6 million in the first year--far more than the $2 million to $7 million cost of the bureau's controversial proposal to flood the area.

Bureau of Reclamation officials have argued hard and long that the experimental procedure deserved a chance before a more expensive cleanup was undertaken.

"We are disappointed," said Susan Hoffman, the bureau's Kesterson project manager. "Technically, I think that the proposal the bureau made, that the (U.S.) Department of Interior submitted, was appropriate. There is plenty of data and documentation for that. . . . I can say that it is sufficiently optimistic that it is worth trying."

Neither Hoffman nor bureau spokesman Douglas Baldwin could say whether the federal agencies would challenge the state board's action. Although Baldwin said his agency is still reviewing the issue of whether a state agency can force the federal government to conduct a cleanup, state officials are confident that the law is on their side. The federal Clean Water Act requires that the bureau comply with a state board order, said Sheila Vassey, staff counsel to the board.

In its order, the state board commended the bureau for its efforts to find less expensive ways to deal with the selenium contamination, but concluded that the "continuing threat to waterfowl and other wildlife" was too great to permit delay.

"I know a lot of people would like to wait a little longer and hope for better things in the future," said the board's chairman, W. Don Maughan, referring to the federal plan. But Maughan said his experience in government had taught him that delaying tough decisions only "adds to the problem."

Others were less tactful in their view of the Bureau of Reclamation's proposed handling of problems at Kesterson.

The federal bureaucrats "have screwed up from here to Sunday," said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez). "I'm delighted that the board showed the courage in dealing with this that the bureau has failed to exhibit."

"The state is more in tune with what needs to be done than the feds," said Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Fresno), whose constituents include the growers of the Westlands Water District, where the selenium-laden runoff that polluted Kesterson originated. "A lot of people are going to point their finger at my farmers, but the feds did this."

Coelho and Miller said that they will meet next week in an effort to find the money needed to pay for the state-ordered cleanup.

Federal law requires that the "beneficiaries" of the Central Valley Project, the massive federal water system, pay the costs of running the system, including any cleanup costs. Coelho said that means that "either all the farmers in the Central Valley project or the federal government" will pay for the Kesterson cleanup.

Environmentalists, who have repeatedly castigated the Bureau of Reclamation for what they regarded as its delaying tactics, praised the state water board action.

"The state deserves a lot of credit," said attorney Hamilton Candee of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The state order "is very good news," said Terry F. Young, a scientist with the Environmental Defense Council. She said the board rejected a bureau plan that was "nothing more than a highly speculative, experimental program designed to buy them time and a short-term cost savings and preserve engineering structures at Kesterson for use later on."

These and other environmental groups believe that the Kesterson problem is only the most visible symptom of a profound problem that may affect vast areas of agricultural land in the Central Valley.

Selenium is one of several chemicals naturally present in soil. Heavy irrigation brings it to the surface, and over time, toxic levels begin appearing in drain water. Agricultural drainage also includes pesticides and fertilizers that ultimately drain into rivers or underground water supplies.

More than two decades ago, officials of the Westlands Water District agreed to pay a 50-cents-per-acre-foot fee to the Bureau of Reclamation to cover the cost of a gigantic drainage project that would ultimately carry agricultural runoff to San Francisco Bay.

But only half of the main drainage canal--about 80 miles--was completed. Instead of carrying water into the bay, the San Luis Drain stopped at a series of ponds at Kesterson that were originally intended to regulate water flows.

In 1985, the state board ordered the Kesterson Reservoir closed.

The Bureau of Reclamation complied, plugging the last flows into Kesterson in June of last year.

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