06/20/2012 01:13 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2012

California's Selenium Time Bomb Keeps Ticking

Jon Stewart ran a typically risible segment last week about a distinctly unfunny story: the discovery of a two-headed trout in an Idaho watershed, the result of selenium contamination from phosphate mining operations by the J.R. Simplot Co. The bit reprises, in a far funnier way, an earlier New York Times piece on the issue by Leslie Kaufman.

A significant subtext to this saga is the connivance of the federal agencies empowered to regulate such pollution. As Kaufman reported, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rolled over for Simplot, practically begging to have its belly scratched. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supervisors barred their lead selenium toxicologist, Joe Skorupa, from addressing Simplot's foul deeds on Stewart's show.

Environmental problems with selenium mostly occur when the element is released from soils into waterways by human activities such as phosphate mining or irrigated agriculture. At high levels, selenium is a potent mutagen, resulting not just in two-headed fish: You can end up with a true teratogenic menagerie chock full of wingless birds and six-legged frogs. Wild ungulates and livestock grazing on vegetation in selenium-rich soils can lose their hair and hooves. Or die outright.

And Simplot, unhappily, is just the tip of the selenium iceberg. Readers of a certain age will remember the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge imbroglio of 30 years ago. This federal waterfowl reserve in California received selenium-contaminated "drainwater" from the giant corporate farms of the western San Joaquin Valley. (Drainwater results from the seasonal flushing of fields with freshwater to remove accumulated salts; the selenium in the soil dissolves with the salts, and is likewise transported.)

As with the trout in Idaho, so with the waterfowl and shorebirds in Kesterson. The birds paddling and wading around the refuge looked like they were drawn by R. Crumb during a particularly vicious acid flashback. Drainwater deliveries to the refuge were subsequently halted, but irrigation hasn't stopped in the highly seleniferous soils of the western San Joaquin Valley. The drainwater is now dumped into a tributary of the San Joaquin River, where it winds its way to San Francisco Bay: hardly a great improvement.

The logical solution is to "retire" the irrigated croplands of the western San Joaquin. This is the course proposed by the U.S. Geological Survey, one of the few federal agencies to retain a shred of independence and credibility on the selenium issue. Shutting down the "Westside," however, would deeply enrage the constituency that counts most in Washington: people with lots of money. Wealthy Westside corporate farmers have things just where they want them. They get water at below market prices delivered via a federal boondoggle known as the Central Valley Project. Some of their crops are highly subsidized, such as cotton. It's an elegant double dip: taxpayers support both the delivery of the water and the production of the crop.

Still, Westside bigwigs know they have to do something. The public, after all, will only tolerate a limited number of mutated trout and ducks. So with the fervent support (some would say behest) of agribusiness, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is pursuing another angle: a hare-brained, Rube Goldberg scheme that is doomed to failure -- and oh, yeah, costs another $37 million in your tax dollars. (That's up from an estimate of $15 million in 2010). The idea: construct a pilot treatment plant to remove selenium and salt from the western San Joaquin's drainwater.

Never mind that both the Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife have acknowledged that past attempts to remove selenium from drainwater have been a miserable failure. And never mind that the costs of eliminating selenium via the plant - if it does work - would total between $38,000 and $76,000 per acre foot of water. According to John Keys, a former Reclamation commissioner, a single district of the western San Joaquin Valley - the San Luis Unit -- generates about 97,000 acre feet of selenium-contaminated drainwater a year. Extrapolating from this metric, Tom Stokely of the California Water Impact Network calculates that the 1.3 million acres of "drainage impaired" cropland in the valley produce about 338,000 acre feet of drainwater annually. Even if the technology is refined to the point that it is successful and the price of treatment falls to a fraction of current estimates -- say, $10,000 an acre foot -- you still end up with an annual tab of $3.4 billion.

Twenty years ago, when speaking of the Westside, northern California fisheries consultant Bill Kier drolly noted that "the welfare queens ain't got nothing on the cotton kings." It was true then, and it remains true today. We don't need to soak America's beleaguered taxpayers just to shovel more pork down the maws of a few hundred corporate farmers. We don't need to spend millions for a bogus pilot treatment plant, then billions more in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to treat drainwater on a wholesale basis. We need to get the Westside off the dole, and we need to retire seleniferous lands. Our two-headed trout and six-eyed ducks demand it.