Delta death - Page 2

California has spent more than $10 billion on water projects that are contributing to the death of San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento Delta -- a special report


Water officials, drainers, and the major environmental groups forged a deal in 1995 to permit the toxic drainage to continue until October 2010, at which time the discharges were to end. But that hasn't happened; the water boards have approved a new target date for compliance (2019) and sanctioned continued dumping of toxic drainage. The train wreck in the making will be allowed to continue dumping and pumping toxic salts every day into the waters of the state for the rest of this decade.

The tons of toxics salts being discharged into the waters of the state are only the tip of the iceberg. An unfathomable amount of toxic salts are also being stored in the soil underground, contaminating groundwater basins throughout the valley.

State and federal officials have put a lot of faith in a federal Bureau of Reclamation project known as the Grasslands Bypass, which is designed to send contaminated agricultural water through a part of the old San Luis Drain (that once led to the contamination of the Kesterson Wildlife Refuge) into a San Joaquin tributary known as Mud Slough.

The Grasslands Bypass Project, begun in 1995, is operated by the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Reclamation. It reroutes subsurface agricultural drainage water around wetlands on its way eastward to the San Joaquin River.

Originally the agricultural runoff traveled through Salt Slough (a San Joaquin River tributary), which passed through wetlands on the way to the river. The Grasslands Bypass Project uses the San Luis Drain to reroute that runoff around approximately 100,000 acres of land between Firebaugh and Los Banos and into Mud Slough (another tributary of the San Joaquin River).

Carolee Krieger, president of the California Water Impact Network (C-WIN), says the Grasslands Bypass Project misses the point. The best solution, she said, is to stop farming altogether on the poorly-draining western valley along the San Joaquin River.

The project protects the wetlands but hurts the river itself. Dennis Lemly, research professor of biology at Wake Forest University in Winston/Salem, N.C., confirmed in December 2009 that the continuation of the Grasslands Bypass Project will cause a 50 percent mortality among juvenile Chinook salmon and Central Valley Steelhead in the San Joaquin River. Furthermore, the state water board lists both the Carquinez Strait and Suisun Bay, both downstream from the San Joaquin River, as "impaired" for their excessive selenium content.

At best, the bypass project can only slightly mitigate the damage. The only real way to resolve the discharge of the tons of toxic salts is to stop irrigating land that has known drainage problems.

In the early 1980s, the discharge of the toxic salts into the now-closed Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, located in the San Joaquin Valley, was the site of one of the worst government-induced wildlife crises in American history. Several studies have since been conducted and numerous Band-Aid-type fixes have been implemented, costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. So far officials have failed to identify a viable cost-effective solution to the toxic agricultural drainage crisis and estimate a pilot program will cost at least $2 billion.

Meanwhile, the Legislative Analyst reported in 2008 that the state and federal government have spent $5 billion on projects to improve the Delta.

This is one of the ways your tax dollars fund the destruction of the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem.

Patrick Porgans is a Sacramento-based water-policy consultant. Lloyd Carter, a former UPI and Fresno Bee reporter, has covered water issues in California for more than 30 years. For more information, go to and Additional research was done by Noah Arroyo.