The Answer Is Blowing in the Wind

This is a fable, sort of. It has a couple of twists and turns, so bear with me. Actually it doesn't even start up here in farm country but down south, at a dinner party in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles affair was hosted by a local apparatchik of government, and the conversation was heavy on politics and the paralysis that attends public life these days. Somewhere toward dessert one of the guests wondered out loud when, if ever, Californians would start to show signs of the popular unrest that has nettled governments from Bucharest to Johannesburg.

"We watch these movements like spectators," she said. "Do you think anyone is ever going to say, 'hey, if those people can start solving their problems, maybe we can too?' "

She paused. "How bad do things have to get before that happens?" she asked.

The other guests, mostly children of the '60s, were all quiet. Nobody knew.

I don't know either, but you cannot come to Los Banos without being reminded of the question. That's because this week we mark a fifth anniversary here, one that reveals just how bad it can get.

The story begins in high drama. On March 15, five years ago, the federal government declared it was taking emergency action to rectify one of the worst cases of agricultural poisoning in U.S. history. High levels of the element selenium and various heavy metals had been discovered in the drainage water coming off the farms of the San Joaquin Valley's west side.

Ironically, these poisons were God's work, not man's. They had been trapped in the soils for millennia until farmers began flooding the lands with federal irrigation water. The water picked up the poisons, and this soup flowed as drainage into nearby Kesterson Wildlife Refuge. By 1985 Kesterson was a wildlife Bhopal, its marshes producing grotesque birth deformities in young birds.

So the feds blew into town and made their dramatic announcement. They were going to shut off water to 42,000 acres of farmland on the west side. No water meant the farms would be history. In addition, they promised a plan to clean up selenium in the valley and put the price tag at $500 million.

Now comes the fun part. What do you think has happened in the intervening five years? To make the task simpler, just answer these quick questions:

1. Was the water really shut off to the San Joaquin farmers?

2. Is Kesterson now recovered?

3. Do the feds have a selenium plan?

If you answered no to all three, give yourself a star. Not a drop has been denied the west side farmers. Kesterson refuge, far from recovering, now stands as a dead zone. Restoration was judged too expensive.

As for the selenium plan, some $25 million of federal monies has been spent so far. But there is no plan. And there's no date when one is expected.

Meanwhile--there's always a meanwhile in stories like this--more Kestersons have been found further south in the Tulare Basin. These are evaporation ponds on private land that also function as dumps for drainage water. The ponds don't have the cachet of a federal wildlife refuge and have not attracted much public attention, but birds don't know the difference and they nest there and produce the same deformed chicks as were produced at Kesterson. No one knows what to do about the ponds.

At one point, the farmers made an effort to get money for an experimental treatment plant. The money was appropriated by Congress in 1986, but the feds--the same people who declared the emergency in 1985--refused to spend it. At $3.5 million, it was just too costly.

I am sure that some partisans of the Kesterson affair would claim I am exaggerating the size of the failure here. They would say there has been progress in persuading the farmers to use less irrigation water, thereby producing less waste. They would say that some new lands have been purchased to replace the Kesterson dead zone.

True enough, but the core of the failure remains: Selenium still poisons the west side, and no one knows what to do. Kesterson has become one more problem without a solution. It is neither the smallest nor the largest example of this kind of failure. It is simply one more example.

Unlike a real fable, this one has no ending. Five years old already, Kesterson has followed us into the '90s and, who knows, it may be there to help us welcome the 21st Century.

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