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Opinion: Stop Farmers’ Poisoning of Bay Area Drinking Water Supply:

Updated: Oct 15, 2021

A Central Valley water board has approved 25 years of toxic discharges of agricultural wastewater into the Delta

By Regina Chichizola for the Mercury News, Feb 7th, 2020


The Central Valley Regional Water Board has issued a 25-year permit for toxic discharges of agricultural wastewater into the San Joaquin River and Bay-Delta, which provides millions of Californians drinking water in parts of Contra Costa, Santa Clara, Alameda and Solano Counties.

The decision in December came after Stockton residents, commercial fishermen, recreational anglers, drinking water advocates and environmental groups testified against the permit. Only the polluters testified in support.  Fishermen and environmental groups have appealed the water board’s decision to the state of California, leaving the future of this permit uncertain.

The crops, such as almonds, that Westlands Water District and their buddies in the western San Joaquin Valley grow, and how they obtain their water has been well documented. What many people do not know is they use much of this water to irrigate California’s selenium-poisoned lands in the arid western San Joaquin Valley.

The drainage from these farms, high in selenium, mercury and other toxins, is being discharged into the San Joaquin River, and thus the drinking water supply of Bay Area residents and millions of Californians.

For the past 23 years the state permitted highly contaminated wastewater to be discharged into the San Joaquin River, Delta and San Francisco Bay. The justification was to keep the contamination out of wildlife refuges and duck clubs to avoid a crisis such as the Kesterson Wildlife disaster that led to massive birth defects in waterfowl. Now that this water is being discharged into the San Joaquin River these deformities are being found in fish.

Over $25 million of taxpayer money has been used to study treatment of the poisoned discharges. Despite a massive effort, no solutions have been found other than to stop irrigation of some of the poisoned lands.  In fact, a recent report demonstrates that the Bureau of Reclamation spent a reported $67.8 million for a demonstration treatment plant that has consistently failed to meet operational performance goals.

Selenium is not the only pollutant being discharged — salinity, mercury, nitrates and pesticides are all byproducts of the poisoned land. The problem of agricultural pollution, on and off of the poisoned lands, has become so bad that the state now estimates the majority of the water in the Central Valley will be unusable within 50 years and is considering a $7 billion brine pipeline that would discharge into San Francisco Bay.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has suggested retiring these lands to stop continued contamination. However, despite objections, the state continues to issue permits for toxins to be released into millions of people’s drinking water supply and endangered fish habitat.

The situation is the perfect example of regulatory capture by corporate water interests in California. Water boards are supposed to protect the people, not wealthy almond growers and water brokers. It is also a high-stakes effort for Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who is currently embroiled in a scandal around his agency’s newly proposed permanent water contract to Westland because he was their lop lobbyist before President Trump gave him his current job.

All Californians should oppose this permit. Clean water in California is getting hard to find and climate change is only making it more precious.

We cannot afford to permit another quarter-century of selenium pollution in California’s water. Changing course on this permit does not mean the end of farming; it only means farmers of poisoned lands will have to accept that some of their land may not be irrigable any longer and that they must stop piping their waste into the San Joaquin River.

Let’s not continue to let our rivers, Delta and Bay be used as dumps. Clean water is a human right and once our fish are gone, they may not ever come back.

Regina Chichizola is the co-director of Save California Salmon.

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