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Groups to sue feds and Westside growers to stop water pollution

Fishing and Conservation Groups Intend To Sue Feds and Westside Irrigators to Enforce Water Pollution Control Laws

San Francisco California-- Fishing and conservation groups served notice June7 under the Clean Water Act that they are going to federal court to get water pollution control standards enforced to halt this unlawful pollution and to restore the ecological health of the San Joaquin River and Bay-Delta Estuary. For more than two decades Delta-Mendota western San Joaquin Valley irrigators have been allowed to pollute the river and San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary with toxic discharges.

Selenium is a highly toxic substance that contaminates the soils of the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, rendering these lands unfit for large scale commercial agriculture because of the water pollution it causes. When these selenium-laden soils are irrigated, the selenium leaches into groundwater and surface waters, spreading its toxic legacy.

For decades, state and federal officials have looked the other way and refused to enforce water pollution control standards that restrict the discharge of this toxic substance into the San Joaquin River and other tributaries of the Bay-Delta Estuary. On March 17, 2011, the federal Environmental Protection Agency agreed to allow these toxic discharges to continue another 10 years, in direct violation of the Clean Water Act’s mandate that the nation’s waters be both swimmable and fishable.

“Think twice before you consider fishing, boating or swimming on the San Joaquin River near its confluence with the Merced River,” explained Steve Evans, Conservation Director for Friends of the River. “This is where these irrigators dump toxic selenium-contaminated water at levels high enough to deform wildlife and threaten drinking water, as the polluted discharge swirls past signs posted along the slough and river warning would-be anglers not to eat fish caught in the toxic brew due to the risk of birth defects.”

“For decades, these west side irrigators have received a free pass to pollute,” continued Bill Jennings, of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. “It’s time to enforce the law and make these polluters meet protective water quality standards.”

Longtime residents of California will recall the first shocking photographs published in late 1983 by the San Jose Mercury News of bird embryos with twisted beaks, deformed heads and missing eyes. Birds along the Pacific Flyway died by the thousands at Kesterson Wildlife Refuge near Los Banos, California -- one of the state’s worst wildlife disasters. Numerous studies confirmed that selenium-laced discharges from Westlands Water District (Westlands) lands and other west side irrigators produced the selenium waste water that caused the Kesterson disaster.

“It’s been nearly three decades since I held the first deformed chick in my hands,” recalled Felix Smith, a retired United States Fish and Wildlife biologist who documented the selenium waterfowl deformities and is a party to the notice letter. “Since that time I have seen state and federal water officials buckle under the political pressure and look the other way, as they refused to enforce the law to halt these poisonous discharges. Their continuing failure to act threatens to create Kesterson II, unless people wake up and demand that water quality officials do their jobs.”

Instead of cleaning up their unlawful discharges, the polluters--giant west side agricultural powerhouses--have claimed that “dilution is the solution,” explained Zeke Grader of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “But their ‘solution’ is illegal. Contrary to the Clean Water Act, their supposed ‘solution’ dumps dangerous pollutants into the public’s waterways, harming fish and wildlife. They just keep loading selenium wastewater that caused the Kesterson disaster into our waterways, threatening the reproduction of salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, crab and other fish.”

“It is the Bay-Delta Estuary double whammy,” explained Larry Collins, Crab Boat Owners Association. “These west side irrigators want to crank up the pumping to divert fresh water, while at the same time increasing the chemical brew dumped back into the San Joaquin River and Bay-Delta Estuary, killing aquatic life and decimating jobs.”

Selenium builds up in the food chain and causes reproduction failure, increased predation, death and deformities and can threaten human health. Recently, in both 2008 and 2003 these “Kesterson Effect” deformities have been documented. Already 100,000 acres have been retired because discharges produced an untreated toxic brew of salts, selenium, boron and other contaminants.

The federal government has documented that the continued federally-subsidized irrigation of nearly 400,000 acres of selenium-rich soils along the west side of the valley, coupled with the irrigators’ refusal to remove this contaminant before discharging it to ground and surface waters, is causing the selenium contamination of groundwater and surface water to spread out from Westlands Water District lands and the other west side irrigators.

“The San Joaquin River and its tributaries, like Mud Slough, are not a de facto drain to be used by these west side polluters to transfer their pollution to others,” stated Steve Volker, attorney for the plaintiff groups. “The Clean Water Act demands that our water quality and aquatic life be protected and the polluters be held to account for their pollution.”

Contacts: Zeke Grader [415-561-5080]
Bill Jennings [209-464-5067]
Steve Evans [916-442-3155 X221]
Larry Collins [415-885-1180]
Steve Volker [510-496-0600]