Thursday, November 30, 2006

Selenium Negotiations

Messy problem needs fixing and it might require the loss of some agricultural land.

Selenium fix remains elusive
A solution to the problem will be expensive and could spawn its own environmental issues.
By David Whitney - Bee Washington BureauPublished 12:00 am PST Thursday, November 30, 2006

Negotiations are under way to resolve one of the Central Valley's messiest issues -- how to drain selenium-laced runoff from hundreds of thousands of acres of federally irrigated land.

The Bureau of Reclamation, irrigators and other interested parties met for about a week earlier this month in Sacramento in an effort to reach agreement. More meetings are planned.

"We've begun talking with irrigators to come up with some sort of collaborative resolution that meets everybody's needs, including the federal taxpayers, the water users and the environment," bureau spokesman Jeff McCracken said Wednesday.

Selenium is a naturally occurring mineral that in the right amounts is essential to good health. But in vast areas of the Central Valley, farmlands are so rich with it and other compounds that they must be flushed to remain productive. The result is huge amounts of drain water that has such high concentrations of selenium that it is toxic to fish and birds.

The dangers were dramatically revealed in the 1980s after drain water had been directed to Kesterson Reservoir.

Deformed waterfowl were found in 1983, and releases there were halted in 1985. While there is some limited disposal into the San Joaquin River, a permanent solution has remained elusive.

The drainage disaster spawned a federal lawsuit. One consequence so far has been an order that the Bureau of Reclamation must find a way to drain and dispose of the water that has inundated tens of thousands of acres.

Among the solutions on the table are bureau proposals to retire 308,000 acres of highly productive agricultural land so that it is no longer irrigated, or to pump the contaminated drain water into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta or the Pacific Ocean.