EDITORIAL: A toxic solution to Westlands lawsuit
March 04--The arrests of five employees of a tiny Central Valley water district last month exposed a huge problem in efforts to keep toxic agricultural runoff from polluting a major California river and San Francisco Bay. That is, the purported solution -- treating the toxic water on site -- doesn't work. Without effective treatment, there is no way Congress should approve an already questionable $375 million settlement between the federal government and the politically powerful Westlands Water District.
The Panoche Water District is key to that settlement. Panoche is, with federal financial assistance, building a water treatment demonstration project. It was hoped the technology, if successful, could be scaled up so Westlands and other irrigation districts could clean hundreds of thousands of acre feet of polluted water as promised. The state attorney general's indictments of the Panoche employees for embezzling district funds and burying 86 barrels of toxic waste on district land, however, suggest the "model" project is no model.
Separately, before the arrests, an audit by the U.S. Department of the Interior's inspector general questioned how the $15 million pilot project had grown into a "full-size $37 million plant." And: "We have been told that the costs to operate and maintain the plant could outweigh the benefits of the treated water produced."
The toxic water results from irrigating soils naturally containing selenium, boron and salts. Its harmful effects became apparent in the early 1980s. Farmers reported their cattle were dying, and huge die-offs of sick and deformed ducks were discovered at the Kesterson Wildlife Refuge where irrigators were dumping their toxic water.
The Westlands settlement would absolve the district of its $375 million share of the cost of the federal water project that ships water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to farmers on the arid west side of the San Joaquin Valley. The agreement was worked out two years ago by the Obama administration and embraced by the Trump administration.
It would also open the door to a permanent rather than year-to-year federal contract for taxpayer-subsidized water in exchange for taking responsibility for dealing with toxic drainage, an estimated $2.7 billion liability the federal government is anxious to get off its books. The settlement however contains no monitoring requirements, no performance standards or federal oversight -- just some vaguely worded promises that the district will stop exporting polluted water.
Congress already has missed a Jan. 15 deadline to approve the funds. The deal, however, is apparently still alive. It shouldn't be: The proposed settlement is a gift to wealthy landowners of public funds and cheap, subsidized water, an enormously valuable public resource that belongs to all Californians. A better solution: Stop irrigating toxic soils.
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