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Showdown Over Selenium Standards Slated for May 27

by Dan Bacher
A broad coalition of 18 organizations, representing fisheries, tribal and environmental interests, opposes the pollution waiver. Waste waters from the San Luis Drain are currently 10 times the level considered safe. The coalition believes the pollution should be halted at its source, not sent downstream.

The legacy of agribusiness pollution: These are deformed embryos of the bird species Stilt collected from a single nest from a Tulare Basin evaporation pond in the Southern San Joaquin Valley in 2001. Selenium from west side San Joaquin Valley farms caused massive wildlife deformities in birds at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, exposed by federal biologist Felix Smith, in Merced County in the early 1980s. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's lackeys on the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Board are expected to grant more pollution waivers to corporate agribusiness on May 27. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Showdown Over Selenium Standards Slated for May 27

Will the water board make a second Kesterson disaster inevitable?

by Dan Bacher

After 14 years of delay, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board is poised to grant corporate agribusiness on the San Joaquin Valley's west side more "non‐enforcement of the law" at a public hearing in Rancho Cordova on May 27, according to a news advisory from a coalition of groups.

"Irrigators will be allowed to violate selenium water quality standards for another decade under the provisions of a pollution waiver before the Water Board," said Carolee Krieger, President of the California Water Impact Network.

Selenium is a naturally occurring chemical element heavily concentrated in the soils of the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. "But when the selenium‐laden soils are irrigated, the selenium leaches into groundwater and surface waters, discharging and spreading its toxic legacy," explained Krieger. "Selenium‐laced contaminated water will continue to flow from Mud Slough into the San Joaquin River, the Delta, and San Francisco Bay for years to come."

Krieger said that non‐enforcement of the law and continued delay is driving San Joaquin wetlands and waters inevitably toward a "second Kesterson disaster."

"Who could forget those 1984 pictures of birds with twisted beaks, deformed heads and dead chicks where selenium‐contaminated agricultural drainage flowed into Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge?" she asked. "State and federal indecision and neglect killed thousands of birds."

The selenium drainage pollution from Westlands Water District and other Westside irrigators created one of the largest environmental disasters in the state’s history. The pollution has continued as the Water Board granted pollution waiver after pollution waiver, according to Krieger.

Selenium, unlike other pollutants, bioaccumulates in the food chain and threatens migratory birds, salmon and steelhead, as well as endangered species such as Swainson’s hawks, giant garter snakes, kit foxes and other species.

During the public hearing, the board will consider an amendment to the Water Quality Control Plan for the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers that would allow these polluted discharges until the end of 2019.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s Grasslands Bypass Project collects contaminated agricultural drainage from the northerly area of the San Luis Unit of the Central Valley Project through 27 miles of the San Luis Drain and discharges this pollution into a tributary of the San Joaquin River, according to Krieger. In addition, highly contaminated sediments, some classified as hazardous waste, have been accumulating in the drain with no plan for safe disposal.

"Without funding or proven treatment technology, the Bureau of Reclamation and these irrigators are requesting another pollution waiver to allow the continued irrigation of these toxic soils while sending their pollution downstream," said Krieger. "The question is whether or not waiving the enforcement of selenium standards for another ten years will create an even larger ecological disaster, further spreading these contaminants throughout sensitive wetlands and river habitat throughout the Delta and San Francisco Bay."

The San Luis Unit water contractors collectively receive enough water for a city of 12 million people, are heavily subsidized, and collectively owe taxpayers $497 million for reimbursement of Central Valley Project costs funded from the public trough. Reduction of irrigation deliveries and a return to environmentally compatible dryland farming were not considered as an alternative, even though the U.S. Geological Survey has stated that “Land retirement is a key strategy to reduce drainage because it can effectively reduce drainage to zero if all drainage‐impaired lands are retired.”

The USEPA has urged the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board to enact effective selenium source controls, according to Krieger. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warns that other adjacent wildlife areas and the fishery in the San Joaquin River are at risk. These selenium contaminated waters are upstream of the water supply pumps in the Southern Delta that serve Southern California's urban population.

A broad coalition of 18 organizations, representing fisheries, tribal and environmental interests, opposes the pollution waiver. Waste waters from the San Luis Drain are currently 10 times the level considered safe. The coalition believes the pollution should be halted at its source, not sent downstream.

"Kesterson was a wake‐up call. But no one at the State Water Resources Control Board woke up," said Krieger. "Westlands is simply too politically powerful."

Westlands is the state’s lead proponent of the proposed ‘Peripheral Canal II’ and one of the key beneficiaries of Sen. Steinberg’s “historic Delta protection” bill last year and this November’s costly $11.1 billion water bond. The canal, backed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, corporate agribusiness, southern California water agencies and developers and some corporate "environmental" NGOs such as the Nature Conservancy, would cost an estimated $23 to $53.8 billion at a time when California is in unprecedented economic crisis.

The federal government has documented that the continued use of federally subsidized irrigation water to irrigate 379,000 acres of selenium rich soils along the west side of the valley is causing the selenium contamination of groundwater and surface waters spreading out from Westlands Water District and the other west side farms.

"The time for 'let’s pretend' selenium pollution will magically disappear is over," added Krieger. "The Water Board should deny approval of the proposed amendment to the San Joaquin Basin Plan that would give Westlands and other Wes tside irrigators another decade to avoid enforcement of the state’s selenium water‐quality standard and the federal selenium criteria for aquatic life. It should be our state policy to avoid Kesterson II."

The hearing takes place as Arnold Schwarzenegger, the worst Governor in California history, wages war on salmon, salmon fishermen and California Delta fish populations. Not only has Schwarzenegger been the foremost political supporter of the peripheral canal, but he has continually attacked the federal biological opinions protecting Central Valley salmon and Delta smelt.

He has presided over the collapse of Central Valley Chinook salmon, delta smelt, longfin smelt, striped bass, green sturgeon, threadfin shad and other species by exporting record levels of water to agribusiness and southern California during his administration.

Meanwhile, he has fast-tracked a corrupt, elitist and racist Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) process overseen by oil industry, marina development, real estate and other corporate interests. This widely-contested process, led by MLPA Initiative executive director Ken Wiseman and funded by the private Resources Legacy Fund Foundation, has violated numerous state, federal and international laws by kicking Indian Tribes, fishermen and seaweed harvesters off their traditional areas while taking pollution, oil drilling and habitat destruction off the table.

Schwarzenegger's MLPA Initiative has openly violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the Bagley-Keene Open Meetings Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Article 32, Section 2, of the Declaration mandates "free prior and informed consent" in consultation with the indigenous population affected by a state action (

The board, as is typical under the Schwarzenegger regime, is expected to violate the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws by allowing Westlands Water District, a junior water rights holdover, to continue polluting Central Valley waterways and destroying imperiled fish and wildlife populations.

The comments of the coalition, USEPA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can be found at

Information on the public hearing and the proposed approval resolution can be found at

Additional information on the Grasslands Bypass Project and selenium can be found on the website of the California Water Impact Network at http://www.c‐‐waters.html.

Date: May 27, 2010
Time: 8:30 am
Place: Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board
11020 Sun Center Drive, #200, Rancho Cordova, CA 95670

For more information, contact: Carolee Krieger, President, California Water Impact Network (805) 969‐9565; Bill Jennings, Executive Director, CA Sportfishing Protection Alliance (209) 464-5067;Steven L. Evans, Conservation Director, Friends of the River (916) 442‐3155, Ext. 221; and Tom Stokely, Media Contact California Water Impact Network (530) 524‐0315
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then no more selenium contamination!
Tue, May 25, 2010 4:51PM
Sun, May 23, 2010 5:33PM
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