For the Birds

05/25/2011 12:05 pm ET

It was twenty five years ago when the birds started dying. Those not busy dying were being born - deformed, blind, without beaks or feathers, with two heads. Something was very wrong at the wildlife refuge called Kesterson, located in California's vast Central Valley. It had become an agricultural waste dump.

The sorry events at the National Kesterson wildlife refuge took place in 1982. Last week, a federal agency recommended that the very same 150,000 acres in the Westlands (as in west of Fresno) responsible for Kesterson's waste should now be taken out of production. Why now? Because of lots of other "little Kestersons" have since popped up throughout the Valley. Waste treatment alone for them will cost more than $2.4 billion- with the bill footed, initially at least, by Uncle Sam.

What happened at Kesterson and what has happened during those twenty five years presents a cautionary tale about corporate welfare dependency, runaway subsidies and manufactured food.

Thanks to the genius of engineering - and the expenditure of billions of tax dollars - California agriculture enjoys the most sophisticated irrigation system in the world. At least until the climate changes, each year enormous quantities of the snowmelt are transported south, part for drinking but more for irrigating - "turning the desert green."

Most Americans, and likely most Californians, do not realize that before the California Aqueduct, the San Joaquin Valley was actually not desert but more or less a marsh. Flocks of waterfowl nested there; tule elk and antelope grazed there; even grizzlies came down to drink at the San Joaquin River. During World War II, that all changed. The Friant Dam plugged the river creating an irrigation project that cost $10 billion - when dollars were dollars. Built by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Central Valley Project and its brethren were wildly successful, making California a world leader in production agriculture.

But there was - and still is - a problem. What to do with the waste? In the 1960s, the Project's irrigation canals reached the Westlands, once the site of an inland sea. Under that soil was a course layer of clay. The water simply refused to drain, instead staying in the plants' root structure. This was not good for the cotton, so re-enter the engineers and their concrete. Beneath the soil, the Bureau built - or rather, began to build - a magnificent tile drainage system, again at public expense. Waste water would be caught by the tiles, collected in a central drain (think bath tub), then pumped back north, eventually to be dumped into the San Francisco Bay Delta. Dubbed the San Luis Drain, this project was about half finished reaching Los Bańos ("the baths"), when, led by California Congressman George Miller, the good folks of Northern California said no thanks.

For years, much of the polluted water was then just left in the drain itself; out of sight, out of mind. Some was pumped onto adjacent fields forming "holding ponds." And in a leap of imagination, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service turned some of these ponds into a wildlife refuge.

Meanwhile, drain or no drain, with eyes fully closed, the Reclamation Bureau continued to send more irrigation water south.

In the late 1970s, a couple of wildlife engineers noticed fish were dying at Kesterson. The folks over at Reclamation were uninterested. The engineers persisted. They had the dead wildlife tested - and found extraordinary levels of selenium, a salt (remember the inland sea) that, when concentrated, is a teratogen (from the Greek for monster), the cause of birth defects. No one would have bothered about this except that some of deformed birds were also migrating waterfowl - stopping off at Kesterson while traveling the Pacific Flyway. They were protected by The Migratory Bird Treaty Act. To harm them was a felony.

So in 1985, a local farmer and the Natural Resources Defense Council ("NRDC") went to the court for the birds; a federal judge granted an injunction; U.S. Interior Secretary James Watt turned off the irrigation water spigot. And all hell broke loose.

Congressional hearings were held in Los Bańos where angry farmers debated environmentalists over whether cotton for export to China was worth more than some coots or geese. Eventually, Kesterson was shut down (it's now grasslands). But the Westlands' irrigation faucet was turned back on, the selenium-laden water moved to other ponds on private land. Some misguided birds still rest in them, not knowing the difference. Some die from it.

So after twenty five years, the feds have screwed up their courage and recommended taking 150,000 acres of the Westlands - about half the offending land - out of production. At a cost of billions, some 2000 acres of ponds would be built to treat the contaminated drain water - this despite warnings that treatment ponds may themselves cause the thousands of deaths of thousands of those pesky waterfowl.

Understandably, environmentalists and the US Fish and Wildlife Service don't like the new plan. They are instead urging Congress to require the "retirement" of virtually all the Westlands land - some 300,000 acres - eliminating the need for treatment. Don't hold your breath.

Almost 70 years ago, Carey McWilliams famously characterized California agriculture as "factories in the fields." He was actually prescient. Today, a handful of millionaires "farm" the Westlands; some of these "farms" are the size of a small state. Most engage in scorched earth agriculture at its best - or worst - the soil first sterilized by chemicals, crops grown in still more chemicals, irrigated with lots and lots of taxpayer subsidized water and sold offshore. What environment?

What kind of public policy is at work here? Where else does the public foot such a bill for private industry - providing both inputs - water - and externalities - cleaning up the waste? Put squarely, why exactly is a taxpayer in New Jersey paying his hard earned cash to clean up the waste of a rich California cotton grower? Why not provide free steel to GM (a company that at least creates thousands of American jobs) then clean up its air and water pollution. Yet Norman Rockwell images of Mom, Pop and the pitchfork die hard. So do out of date laws guaranteeing risk-free farming greased by bipartisan political contributions. So here we go again, about to spend good billions after bad to clean up the Valley. It's for the birds.

Then an environmental lawyer with the NRDC, Al Meyerhoff represented the plaintiffs in the 1985 Kesterson litigation.