It's hard to believe, but the ecological disasters caused by the oil spills from the Exxon Valdez, in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989 and the Braer, off Scotland's Shetland Islands, in 1993 seem to pale when compared with the chronic environmental nightmare being wrought by selenium-contaminated drainwater flowing from irrigated lands in California and 13 other Western states. Selenium is an element essential for growth in humans and animals. In high concentrations it is more poisonous than arsenic. With the government's blessing, and even its connivance, it is pouring into rivers, lakes, wetlands and wildlife refuges and is ringing up a tragic toll: Tens of thousands—some say hundreds of thousands—of birds have died or have been born dead or with grotesque deformities.
The calamity has not attracted the attention it demands, not even in California, though several reporters have written about it. "It amazes me that not a single major environmental group has done anything to stop the killing," says Lloyd Carter, a reporter who left UPI's Fresno bureau in 1990 to attend law school.
"Selenium is a very politically sensitive issue because it challenges powerful economic interests in this part of the country," says Russell Clemings of The Fresno Bee. Adds Tom Harris, who recently retired from The Sacramento Bee, "The government wouldn't allow a metal-plating shop in a city to contaminate wildlife, so why does it let industrial farms discharge drainwater with equally noxious and potent compounds into our waterways? There is political leverage and strength in the agricultural industry that has been able to put off aggressive pollution enforcement."
Although selenium runoff is also a problem in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, no state has been hit as hard as California, where agricultural interests wield clout out of all proportion to their importance to the state economy. Farming consumes at least 80% of all water in California, but cash receipts for all crops came to less than 3% of the state's gross product—$17.5 billion out of $700 billion—in 1989, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Beyond that, one third of the state's water is devoted to growing alfalfa hay, cotton, pasturage and rice, crops that require huge amounts of water—a particularly valuable resource in California, where many of the most intensely farmed regions are semiarid. As Marc Reisner, author of Cadillac Desert; The American West and Its Disappearing Water, points out, "It takes 48,000 pounds of water to grow one pound of cow in the San Joaquin Valley."
To indulge the agricultural interests, California has been transformed into one of the biggest plumbing works on earth. Rivers have been dammed and their flows diverted into a maze of aqueducts, canals and tunnels; salmon runs have been ended; tides have been reversed; water has even been made to flow uphill.
The cost of all this in lost wildlife habitat has been staggering: At the time of the Gold Rush, California had five million acres of wetlands, mostly in the huge Central Valley, which runs 500 miles down the middle of the state; now there are 300,000 acres of wetlands. Just one refuge, Kesterson, has a firm supply of water, and that's because, as we shall see, it was poisoned in the 1980s.
During the 19th century an estimated 60 million waterfowl on the Pacific Flyway—ducks, geese and swans—stopped to feed or to spend the winter in the Central Valley. By the late 1970s the number had decreased to six million. Now it's 2.5 million.
Because of the diversion of water to irrigate toxic fields (that is, fields that naturally contain high levels of selenium and other potentially poisonous elements), birds have been killed or horribly deformed. The western and southern sides of the San Joaquin Valley, which itself is the lower part of the Central Valley, alone produce half a trillion gallons of drainwater a year. In addition to selenium, this drainwater contains arsenic, boron, uranium, chromium, molybdenum and sodium sulfates. And some of the water—no one knows how much—is routinely discharged into the California Aqueduct, which carries drinking water to 15 million people living in Los Angeles and other parts of Southern California.
Like the savings-and-loan bailout, the drainwater mess someday will cost taxpayers a bundle. The government may have to buy up land and mount an enormous cleanup. But some sites probably can never be made completely safe again for birds. Take, for instance, the Salton Sea, which covers 380 square miles in the Imperial Valley, near the Mexican border. The water level of the sea, which was accidentally created by a flood almost 90 years ago, is maintained by piping in drainwater and raw sewage. Last winter 150,000 eared grebes died at the Salton Sea. Infectious disease was ruled out as the cause. The grebes contained a level of selenium three times greater than that found in birds in 1989, and selenium poisoning is seen as a contributing factor in the massive kill.
For the last three years eared grebes nesting in the Tulare Basin, the site of the Kern and the Pixley national wildlife refuges, at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, have suffered complete reproductive failure. Some grebes nest on nearby evaporation ponds, which are man-made wastewater-collection sites. In a near-desert environment an evaporation pond acts as a magnet for wildlife, and what appears to be a welcoming oasis is, in fact, a death trap. Other birds that have suffered deformities or reproductive failure include mallard, northern pintail, gadwalls, redheads, American avocets, black-necked stilt and killdeers. The term ponds for these sites is a misnomer—lakes would be more accurate. There is enough selenium in many grebe eggs found on the evaporation ponds that border the Kern refuge to kill the embryos outright; other contaminants, such as sodium sulfates, are also suspected of killing embryos.