Give 75-year-old Felix Smith of Carmichael credit for tenacity. A quarter-century ago, Smith became the conscience of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when he blew the whistle on the selenium poisoning of the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in western Merced County.
In the spring of 1983, Smith and another biologist discovered deformed bird embryos in nests at Kesterson, where 100-acre holding ponds were evaporating agricultural drainage water from the Westlands Water District. The water contained selenium, a naturally occurring element in the soils of the district that was highly toxic to birds. Adult birds were dying by the thousands and some species had complete reproductive failures.
James Watt, then U.S. secretary of the interior, ordered news of the discovery suppressed while an official press release was prepared. Several months later, with no press release in sight, a frustrated Smith leaked the story to Deborah Blum, then a reporter for The Fresno Bee.
Within 18 months, The New York Times, The Washington Post and CBS' "60 Minutes" all gave major coverage to the unfolding debacle, pitting a politically powerful federal irrigation district against environmentalists and landowners adjacent to Kesterson, who had seen their cattle die.
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In February 1985, the state Water Resources Control Board, responding to a complaint from Kesterson neighbors Jim and Karen Claus, ordered Kesterson cleaned up or closed. The following month, the Interior Department, its options dwindled, ordered Kesterson closed, an action that left the Westlands Water District without drainage -- a problem that still exists.
After 34 years as a federal scientist, Smith retired in 1990, but not into obscurity. In 1995, Smith filed a complaint with the water board contending that irrigation of high-selenium soils in the western San Joaquin Valley was an unreasonable use of the state's water.
He warned that even though the Kesterson ponds had closed, selenium-loaded drainage from federal irrigation districts north of Westlands still was being funneled untreated into the lower San Joaquin River. Studies showed that even 2 to 5 parts of selenium per billion could hurt fish reproduction. That's equivalent to one drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
The water board ignored Smith, claiming work was being done on the drainage problem by state and federal agencies. In 2000, the water board dismissed Smith's complaint. Smith knew funding a private lawsuit to force the water board to act was far more than he could afford. He could have given up.
But in January, with the delta fishery facing catastrophic collapse, he refiled his complaint. In a letter to water board Chairwoman Tam Doduc, Smith wrote, "Many of the impacts documented in my past letters/complaints continue today. In addition, there are other more ominous concerns and environmental impacts coming to the forefront."
This is a reference to the current delta fishery crisis and the collapse of the salmon runs.
Last month, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and the California Water Impact Network also filed a complaint with the water board, alleging unreasonable use of delta water. In an April 15 letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the groups warned of the perils of irrigating soils loaded with selenium. Feinstein is attempting to broker a drainage "solution" with Westlands (and adjacent water districts) that would keep at least 300,000 acres of high-selenium soils in production.
The environmental community has criticized Feinstein for her closed-door negotiations with Westlands growers, who claim they have a drainage solution (limited land retirement, recycling and sprinkler evaporation) -- a solution environmental scientists call unworkable. Where the millions of tons of salts ultimately accumulated would go remains undetermined.
If Feinstein wants to learn something about drainage and selenium, she should sit down with Felix Smith. After a half-century in the water wars, he could give her an earful.
Carter is president of the California Save Our Streams Council and is a resident of Clovis.