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Throwing Good Money at Bad Land
OAKLAND, Calif. - October 20 - A new Environmental Working Group (EWG) analysis
"There is only one solution that makes sense for the great majority of Americans: retire all of the selenium-laced land from farming and transition it to other uses that would be less costly to taxpayers and the environment and provide the nation more benefit," said Renee Sharp, director of EWG's California office.
"Instead of ending irrigation of this toxic land, the federal government plans to build a drainage system to nowhere that will cost many more times more than the land is worth," said Tom Stokely of the California Water Impact Network, a Santa Barbara-Based non-profit organization allied with EWG.
EWG has determined that between 2005 and 2009, $54 million dollars in crop subsidy checks went to Westlands farms with high selenium concentrations. The Bureau of Reclamation has consistently ignored these crop subsidies - which are direct costs to taxpayers - whenever it has calculated the costs and benefits of its plan.
The Westlands acreage at issue is so loaded with selenium and other salts that when it is irrigated, the water must be drained away to avoid poisoning the crops. The fate of this area has been the subject of repeated lawsuits ever since the 1980s, when Westlands water draining into the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge caused an environmental disaster. In 1983, scientists reported that record numbers of migratory birds at Kesterson were hatching with massive deformities, including grossly misshapen beaks, twisted legs, missing wings and malformed skulls. More than 1,000 waterfowl died before the drain from Westlands into the refuge was closed down.
Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Michael Connor outlined the latest plan in a September 1, 2010, letter to U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Unfortunately, the agency's latest plan is just as problematic as the previous one. Among other things, it would:
* Require the federal government to pay to build drainage and treatment facilities for a subsection of the selenium tainted land within Westlands, with the District itself footing the bill for additional drainage and treatment facilities to service acres remaining in production;
* Forgive some or all of Westlands' $497 million debt to taxpayers;
* Transfer ownership of "appropriate" elements of San Luis Unit, a federal-state water infrastructure complex of dams, reservoirs, canals, pumping plants and a power generation station, to Westlands if requested. (According to the Bureau of Reclamation website
* Extend Westlands' water contract length beyond the standard 25 years;
* Provide federal incentives for renewable energy development within Westlands;
* Require Westlands to retire 200,000 acres of selenium-tainted land (it is unclear from the proposal whether this figure would include or would be in addition to already retired land);
* Reduce Westlands' water deliveries proportional to the amount of land retired, but only in years with very high rainfall.
Interior's proposal was not accompanied by an economic analysis. It is impossible to see how this project would end up anywhere but deep in the red.
The true cost to the American people of farming in this area becomes even more exorbitant when millions of dollars in crop subsidies for these farmlands are taken into account.
"It is simply inappropriate to exclude crop subsidies when considering the potential economic costs and benefits of various alternatives in Westlands," said Sharp. "Subsidy payments are real cost outlays by the federal government and are easy to calculate since they have hard numbers attached. "
Federal agencies and Congress must soon settle on a long-term solution for Westlands' toxic lands. The stakes are high: untold millions of taxpayer dollars; hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water in the drought-prone West; the health of the fragile San Francisco-San Joaquin Bay/Delta; the potential for a second Kesterson disaster; and future litigation costs to taxpayers.
The EWG report concludes:
The true costs of farming on Westlands' toxic lands cannot be justified by any measure - economic or environmental. The time has come to fix the Bureau of Reclamation's costly mistake and retire all of the selenium-tainted land in Westlands.