Suit filed over drainage into San Joaquin River

November 9, 2011 

Fishing and conservation groups sued the federal government Wednesday, hoping to stop the west Valley flow of tainted irrigation drainage into the San Joaquin River.

With a long-awaited restoration of salmon starting late next year in the river, the time has come to cut off the contaminated water from the Grassland Bypass Project, the groups say.

West-side farmers have worked with federal and state regulators to reduce the pollution, plaintiffs say, but they have come up far short.

"These discharges are toxic to fish," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the San Francisco-based Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations, a plaintiff. "It doesn't make any sense to continue."

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento. Other plaintiffs include the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and Friends of the River.

West-side farm officials say their work has been a model for cleaning up agricultural drainage. Water quality has improved, and government officials have approved their effort, they say.

"The lawsuit is an unfortunate effort to revisit questions already answered by state and federal agencies," said Dan Nelson, executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, based in Los Banos.

The farmers grow such crops as tomatoes, garlic and cotton on 97,000 acres between Interstate 5 and Firebaugh. For years, their irrigation drainage was sent through a sensitive complex of wildlife refuges and into the San Joaquin.

In 1995, they began sending drainage to the river through a bypass canal to keep tainted water out of the wetlands. The drainage contains selenium, salt, boron and mercury, which can be damaging to wildlife in high concentrations.

Fishing and conservation groups are concerned about selenium, a natural element in the west-side soil. It could be a big problem for salmon runs that are scheduled to be revived by early 2013 in a separate and long-awaited campaign to restore the San Joaquin.

Nearly three decades ago at Kesterson Reservoir in Merced County, scientists discovered selenium in farm drainage water had killed and deformed wildlife. Some of the same problems have been documented in the past few years at the Grassland project, say the lawsuit plaintiffs.

But farm officials say they have dramatically reduced contaminants – wiping out 85% of the selenium and 75% of the salt that flowed into the river in 1995.

Farmers still could not meet a deadline to completely eliminate the contamination by late 2009. Government regulators have granted a 10-year extension, which fishing and conservation groups opposed.

The groups say the farm discharges routinely violate water standards and send contamination downstream to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where drinking water is obtained for millions of Californians.

"It's unfortunate that citizens have to step in and enforce the law," said Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance in Stockton. "But the San Joaquin River will never be restored if we don't control these discharges of toxic wastes."

The reporter can be reached at mgrossi@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6316.

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