Will salt sink an agricultural empire?

Feds still plugged up over disposal of irrigation waters

  • Mike Delamore monitors water quality for the Bureau ofReclamation

    Chris Smith

FRESNO, Calif. - From an unassuming office of the federal Bureau of Reclamation here, Mike Delamore manages a problem that has felled empires since biblical times: salt.

Delamore is drainage chief for the largest, richest and most troubled irrigation district in the nation. For much of his career, he has tried to balance two incompatible demands: draining salt from one of the world's most productive plots of farmland, and protecting water quality in the San Francisco Bay Delta.

He hasn't succeeded yet. "The agency has been dealing with this for more than 40 years," he says.

It might seem surprising the problem is that difficult. All irrigation water carries some salt, but the water diverted from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers to farms in the San Joaquin Valley has lower salinity than typical Southern California tap water * about one pound of salt for every 300 gallons.

The problem here is volume. To produce more than $1 billion in crops each year, the 1,000-square-mile Westlands Water District imports up to 400 billion gallons containing 610,000 tons of salt. It's the equivalent of a train of salt 6,100 cars long, year after year.

When, under the San Luis Act, Congress authorized the Bureau of Reclamation to bring the irrigation water to the west side of the valley in 1960, geologic surveys revealed an impermeable layer of clay beneath the area's sandy loam. In soil like this, irrigation salts build up and will eventually sterilize the land. So Congress told the Bureau to provide drainage from the valley to flush out the salt.

But, says Delamore, "I don't think anybody contemplated back in 1960 how difficult" building such a drain would be.

The Bureau started a 197-mile aqueduct to the delta, but the effort stalled in 1974, 112 miles short of its goal, when political opposition arose in the Bay Area and funding grew tight. Drain water then poured into a holding pond, forming Kesterson Reservoir, which proved to be an infamous killer of wildlife. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service linked deformed and dead birds at the reservoir to selenium, a naturally occurring but toxic element that had also been flushed from the irrigated soil. So in 1985, the Bureau closed the San Luis Drain.

Today, the drain is still plugged and the salt is still building up on the farmland. The land's productivity is falling and, partly as a result, farmers are going bankrupt. Environmentalists and the state water board, worried about threats to wildlife and human health, refuse to consider completing a drain to the delta, an area already impacted by pollutants.

"Any increase in the amount of agricultural runoff coming into the delta is going to bring in more salts and more pollution," says Jeff McLain, fisheries biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "And that's not good for the resident fish populations."

Yet federal courts, ruling on a lawsuit by the irrigation district, have reinforced the requirement that the Bureau of Reclamation has to do something about the salt. With the courts, Congress and farmers on one side, and laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act on the other side, the Bureau is caught in the middle.

Habitat hotspot

The San Francisco Bay's delta stretches up the two main river systems nearly to Stockton and Sacramento and includes hundreds of miles of channels and islands. The delta receives about half of California's total precipitation runoff. It is the state's hydraulic hub: Water stored in the reservoirs in the Sierra Nevada flows to the delta, then is pumped south to cities and farms. Contaminate the hub too much, and you contaminate the whole system.

The delta is also a habitat hotspot. Millions of migratory birds stop in each year. Threatened and endangered chinook salmon, steelhead, delta smelt and Sacramento splittail all migrate through or live in the delta. In all, 230 species of birds, 45 species of mammals, 52 species of fish, and 150 species of flowering plants live in the delta, says Bill Jennings, director of DeltaKeeper, an environmental group based in Stockton.

"It really is a marvelous estuary," says Jennings. "And it is in critical condition, suffering the death of a thousand cuts."

Already, the delta suffers from high levels of pesticides, mercury, selenium and other toxics along with low dissolved oxygen levels, due to runoff from farms, cities and other sources, Jennings says. "The delta simply can't assimilate increased amounts of salt," he says.

Federal and state efforts to find other ways to deal with the salt have cost an estimated $50 million so far, exploring a range of technologies and management schemes, including desalinization plants and salt-concentration ponds.

Every strategy has a drawback: Desalinization systems are energy-intensive and leave behind mountains of salt. Evaporation ponds take up huge tracts of land, and also leave salt behind. Researchers have come up with methods to remove toxic selenium from the drainwater, but they also leave salts.

All of the technical fixes would be expensive. The Bureau estimates that completing the San Luis Drain would cost $850 million, while the cheapest in-valley disposal solution, evaporation ponds, would run $1.5 billion. Under reclamation laws, that cost would be borne by the project's beneficiaries, the district's growers.

"Farming can't support most of the options they've come up with so far," says Thad Bettner, the district's resource manager.

Though the district receives only seven inches of rain a year, the farmers grow about 25 crops, including citrus, grapes, beans, lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower, thanks to the irrigation diversions and pumped groundwater.

A nontechnical strategy - inconceivable until recently - is to take farmland out of production. The district and the Bureau have reportedly been talking about the Department of the Interior buying 200,000 acres - a third of the district - for $500 million. Such a massive land retirement would be a confession that irrigating this portion of the arid West no longer makes sense. It would also mean loss of crop production and a hit to the economy in one of the state's poorest regions.

"This concept of taking land out of production is almost sinful when you think about how good that soil was, and how good it could be again with drainage," says Lou Beck, a retired district chief for the California Department of Water Resources.

"If the government does nothing (about the salt buildup), then for sure during my lifetime or my children's lifetime, the ground will go out of production," says Ted Sheeley, who grows tomatoes, garlic, pistachios and cotton on 1,000 acres. Salty groundwater is now within five feet of the surface on half of his land and his yields are falling.

Suicide irrigation

With their only alternative to sell out at depressed prices, the farmers continue what amounts to suicide irrigation. Last year, 10 percent of the district's farmers went bankrupt, which Sheeley says is due partly to salt and partly to shifts in global markets. Sheeley, also a member of the district's board of directors, is one of many people here who feel betrayed by the Bureau of Reclamation. "The Bureau has become very influenced by environmental groups. In the past, the Bureau looked out for our interests."

Mike Delamore calls the Bureau's approach these days "an evolution in thinking," based on a succession of federal laws, court decisions and evolving science. Under the most recent court order to settle on some strategy, issued by the 9th Circuit Court last December, Delamore is working toward a 2005 deadline to do an environmental impact statement and decide what to do with the salt. The reasonable alternatives to be considered include, once again, completing the San Luis Drain.

At DeltaKeeper, Jennings says any attempt to complete the drain will only trigger a lawsuit in defense of the delta.

"We may end up with competing court decisions," he says. From his perspective, "Ultimately the San Luis Drain is an elusive dream. It's not going to happen."

Jim Downing wrote this story while taking an environmental journalism course at the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley.


  • Thad Bettner, Westlands Water District resource manager, 559/241-6215;
  • Mike Delamore, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Fresno, Calif., 559/487-5039;
  • Jeff McLain, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Stockton, 209/946-6400, ext. 304;
  • Bill Jennings, DeltaKeeper, 209/464-5090.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Jim Downing

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