Lloyd published in the Sacramento Bee

From the Sacramento Bee...

Lloyd G. Carter: A California water story of individual tenacity
By Lloyd G. Carter - Special to The Bee
Published 12:00 am PDT Friday, April 25, 2008
Story appeared in EDITORIALS section, Page B7

You have to give 75-year-old Felix Smith of Carmichael credit for tenacity.

A quarter-century ago, Smith became the conscience of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when he blew the whistle on the selenium poisoning of the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in western Merced County.

In the spring of 1983, Smith and another biologist discovered deformed bird embryos in nests at Kesterson, where 100-acre holding ponds were evaporating agricultural drainage water from the Westlands Water District. The drainage water contained selenium, a naturally occurring element in the soils of Westlands that was highly toxic to bird reproduction. Adult birds were dying by the thousands and some species had a complete reproductive failure.

James Watt, then U.S. secretary of interior, ordered news of the discovery suppressed while an official press release was prepared. Several months later, with the press release still supposedly being formulated, a frustrated Smith leaked the story to Deborah Blum, when she was a reporter for the Fresno Bee.

Within 18 months, the New York Times, the Washington Post and CBS' "60 Minutes" all gave major coverage to the unfolding debacle, pitting a politically powerful federal irrigation district against environmentalists and adjacent Kesterson landowners, who had seen their cattle die.

In February 1985, the State Water Resources Control Board, responding to a complaint from Kesterson neighbors Jim and Karen Claus, ordered Kesterson cleaned up or closed. The following month, the Interior Department, its options dwindled, ordered Kesterson closed, an action that left the Westlands Water District without drainage, a problem that exists to this day.

After 34 years as a federal scientist, Smith retired in 1990, but not into quiet obscurity. In 1995, Smith, as a private citizen, filed a complaint with the water board contending irrigation of high selenium soils in the western Valley was an unreasonable use of water under state law. Smith warned that even though the Kesterson ponds had closed, selenium-loaded drainage from federal irrigation districts north of Westlands was still being funneled untreated into the lower San Joaquin River. Studies had revealed that levels of selenium as low as 2 to 5 parts per billion in the drainage water could impact fish reproduction. That's equivalent to one drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

However, the water board ignored Smith, claiming work was being done on the drainage problem by state and federal agencies. In 2000, the water board dismissed Smith's complaint without taking action. Smith knew that funding a private lawsuit to force the water board to act was simply far more than he could afford.

Smith could have given up and gone fishing with his grandchildren. But in January this year, with the Delta fishery facing catastrophic collapse, he refiled his complaint.

In a Jan. 10 letter to water board Chairwoman Tam Doduc, Smith wrote, "Many of the impacts documented in my past letters/complaints continue today. In addition, there are other more ominous concerns and environmental impacts coming to the forefront."

This is a reference to the current Delta fishery crisis and the collapse of the salmon runs.

Last month, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and the California Water Impact Network also filed a complaint with the water board again alleging unreasonable use of precious Delta water.

The sportfishing alliance and the water network, in an April 15 letter to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, also warned of the perils of irrigating soils loaded with selenium. Feinstein is attempting to broker a drainage "solution" with Westlands (and adjacent water districts) that would keep at least 300,000 acres of high-selenium soils in production.

Feinstein has drawn much criticism from California's environmental community for her closed-door, limited-access negotiations with Westlands growers, who claim they have a drainage solution (limited land retirement, recycling and sprinkler evaporation), a solution that environmental scientists say is highly problematic and almost certainly unworkable. Where the millions of tons of salts ultimately accumulated would go is still undetermined.

If Feinstein wants to learn something about drainage and selenium, she should sit down with Felix Smith. After a half-century in the water wars, he could give her an earful.

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