Build Another Kesterson? You're joking, right?


By Lloyd G. Carter

           A southern San Joaquin Valley water district is proposing to build an 1,800-acre evaporation pond to dispose of toxic subsurface drainage water in a scenario eerily reminiscent of the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge poisoning in the early 1980s.

           The Tulare Lake Drainage District (TLDD), located in Kings and Kern counties in the Tulare Lake Basin, already operates three drainage basins totaling 3,165 acres.  An Initial Study/Mitigated Declaration filed with the State Clearinghouse on December 20,  contended the proposed ponds can be operated safely with minimal impacts on wildlife, offering to "dedicate" 3.6 acres of farmland as mitigation habitat.  But the California Department of Game (DFG)  strongly disagrees and contends a full environmental impact report should be done. 

            The 30-day comment period on the TLDD proposal ended Jan. 22.   Established in 1973, the State Clearinghouse, an agency of the Governor's Office of Planning and Research, coordinates state-level reviews of environmental documents that are prepared pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  The DFG letter was filed a day after the comment period ended.  The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control did not file comments  before the comment period ended. 

            "The Department has concerns about the potential Project-related impacts to threatened and endangered species known to occur in the Project area vicinity, as well as to nesting shorebirds.  It does not appear that all of the Project-related impacts to biological resources have been considered," Jeffrey Single, DFG regional manager, wrote in a comment letter sent to Tulare Lake Drainage District manager Gary  Rose and the regional water board.

            Because of the salts and metals in the soil, official of agricultural water districts must lower the shallow groundwater table to prevent impacts on crop production.

            In the early 1980s, subsurface drainage water originating in the Westlands Water District in western Fresno and Kings counties was funneled to the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in Merced County, where dissolved selenium in the drainage water entered the marsh food chain, killing and deformities birds utilizing the Refuge.   The poisoning made national headlines and Kesterson was ordered cleaned up or closed in a February 1985 order issued by the State Water Resources Control Board.  The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, an agency of the federal Interior Department which operated the Kesterson evaporation facility, announced on March 15, 1985, that it would close down the 1,280 acres of Kesterson ponds.

            TLDD's existing farm drainwater evaporation ponds (built in the 1970s)  operate under waste discharge requirements imposed by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.  TLDD officials contend the new evaporation ponds will be operated in the same manner as the existing ponds.

            In the wake of the Kesterson closure in 1986, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service avian toxicologists studied the Tulare Basin evaporation ponds and concluded that while selenium levels in the drainage were lower than those measured at Kesterson, they were still high enough to impact federally-protected migratory birds.  However, the U.S. Justice Department, which has enforcement responsibility for the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, declined to prosecute for political reasons, triggering strong criticism from environmental groups.

            The DFG comment letter also stated: "[t]he Department is not clear how TLDD can make findings that all potential impacts to biological resources would be mitigated to a level of less-than-significant without accurate identification of the type and extent of sensitive resources, as well as potential effects on those resources."

            There has been no news release by any agency reviewing the TLDD proposed project.

            The 180-page TLDD initial study contends the proposed project "contains substantial features, to avoid, minimize and fully mitigate [] potential effects."  Once the new evaporation ponds fill with salts and metals, the salts "will be capped with clays or removed from the site."  The report did not say where the salts would be taken if they were not kept on-site.

            The TLDD study said creating the new ponds would allow irrigation and continued farming of 18,000 acres of adjacent land now suffering impacts from the increasingly salty groundwater.

            The Fish and Game letter noted that TLDD has not maintained the recommended two-foot depth in its existing evaporation ponds, citing incidents in 2002, 2003 and 2004 in the  Hacienda evaporation basin when "water levels were maintained well below 2 feet; thousand of shorebirds were wading throughout these cells [ponds], the shoreline was a long distance away from the steep pond edges negating their purpose . . .  it is unclear why additional capacity of this magnitude is necessary, especially when difficulties with maintaining water up to the steepend edge [pond levee walls] and at a minimum water depth routinely occur at the TLDD evaporation basins, as has been observed in the past few years," the DFG letter stated.

            The DFG letter added:  "[i]t appears that there is not currently enough tile [subsurface] water being produced to fill the 1,108 acre Hacienda Basin to the minimum 2 foot depth to help prevent shorebird use.  As a result, it is unclear why an additional 1,800 acre evaporation basin is necessary,  when the existing ponds do not appear to be filled to capacity during the peak irrigation season."  One environmentalist speculated TLDD's proposal may create a drainwater disposal solution for Westlands, which has been without its own evaporation ponds since 1986.  If approved, the TLDD project would increase total farm drainwater evaporation ponds in the San Joaquin Valley by 38 percent. 

            Selenium levels in drainage water entering the Hacienda Basin were as high as 23 parts per billion in 2006 and  20 parts per billion in 2010. Federal scientists say impacts on birds begin occurring at selenium levels higher than two parts per billion.

            The DFG letter said if minimum water depth and other requirements cannot be maintained at the existing ponds "it is unclear as to whether or not these measures would be feasibly implemented in the new 1,800-acre evaporation basin."

            The TLDD  Initial study was conducted by Hanson Environmental, Inc. a long-time consultant to agribusiness interests.  The TLDD is controlled by the J.G. Boswell farming corporation.  About 50 percent of the land in the Tulare Basin is still farmed to cotton.

            The proposed project site was purchased from McCarthy Family Farms by TLDD in 2007.  It has been used to grow salt-tolerant crops, including  100 acres of bermuda grass, as a means of reducing the quantity of drainage water.  There are currently 4,800 acres of farm drainwater irrigation ponds in the San Joaquin Valley.

            Species which might be impacted by the proposed ponds include the San Joaquin Kit Fox, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, burrowing owls and shorebirds.

            The documents referenced in this article can be accessed  at the State Clearinghouse Website: .