Skip to main content
Original Issue

The Killing Fields

Toxic drainwater from irrigated farmland in California and other Western states has created an environmental calamity

It's hard to believe, but the ecological disasters caused by the oil spills from the Exxon Valdez, in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989 and the Braer, off Scotland's Shetland Islands, in 1993 seem to pale when compared with the chronic environmental nightmare being wrought by selenium-contaminated drainwater flowing from irrigated lands in California and 13 other Western states. Selenium is an element essential for growth in humans and animals. In high concentrations it is more poisonous than arsenic. With the government's blessing, and even its connivance, it is pouring into rivers, lakes, wetlands and wildlife refuges and is ringing up a tragic toll: Tens of thousands—some say hundreds of thousands—of birds have died or have been born dead or with grotesque deformities.

The calamity has not attracted the attention it demands, not even in California, though several reporters have written about it. "It amazes me that not a single major environmental group has done anything to stop the killing," says Lloyd Carter, a reporter who left UPI's Fresno bureau in 1990 to attend law school.

"Selenium is a very politically sensitive issue because it challenges powerful economic interests in this part of the country," says Russell Clemings of The Fresno Bee. Adds Tom Harris, who recently retired from The Sacramento Bee, "The government wouldn't allow a metal-plating shop in a city to contaminate wildlife, so why does it let industrial farms discharge drainwater with equally noxious and potent compounds into our waterways? There is political leverage and strength in the agricultural industry that has been able to put off aggressive pollution enforcement."

Although selenium runoff is also a problem in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, no state has been hit as hard as California, where agricultural interests wield clout out of all proportion to their importance to the state economy. Farming consumes at least 80% of all water in California, but cash receipts for all crops came to less than 3% of the state's gross product—$17.5 billion out of $700 billion—in 1989, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Beyond that, one third of the state's water is devoted to growing alfalfa hay, cotton, pasturage and rice, crops that require huge amounts of water—a particularly valuable resource in California, where many of the most intensely farmed regions are semiarid. As Marc Reisner, author of Cadillac Desert; The American West and Its Disappearing Water, points out, "It takes 48,000 pounds of water to grow one pound of cow in the San Joaquin Valley."

To indulge the agricultural interests, California has been transformed into one of the biggest plumbing works on earth. Rivers have been dammed and their flows diverted into a maze of aqueducts, canals and tunnels; salmon runs have been ended; tides have been reversed; water has even been made to flow uphill.

The cost of all this in lost wildlife habitat has been staggering: At the time of the Gold Rush, California had five million acres of wetlands, mostly in the huge Central Valley, which runs 500 miles down the middle of the state; now there are 300,000 acres of wetlands. Just one refuge, Kesterson, has a firm supply of water, and that's because, as we shall see, it was poisoned in the 1980s.

During the 19th century an estimated 60 million waterfowl on the Pacific Flyway—ducks, geese and swans—stopped to feed or to spend the winter in the Central Valley. By the late 1970s the number had decreased to six million. Now it's 2.5 million.

Because of the diversion of water to irrigate toxic fields (that is, fields that naturally contain high levels of selenium and other potentially poisonous elements), birds have been killed or horribly deformed. The western and southern sides of the San Joaquin Valley, which itself is the lower part of the Central Valley, alone produce half a trillion gallons of drainwater a year. In addition to selenium, this drainwater contains arsenic, boron, uranium, chromium, molybdenum and sodium sulfates. And some of the water—no one knows how much—is routinely discharged into the California Aqueduct, which carries drinking water to 15 million people living in Los Angeles and other parts of Southern California.

Like the savings-and-loan bailout, the drainwater mess someday will cost taxpayers a bundle. The government may have to buy up land and mount an enormous cleanup. But some sites probably can never be made completely safe again for birds. Take, for instance, the Salton Sea, which covers 380 square miles in the Imperial Valley, near the Mexican border. The water level of the sea, which was accidentally created by a flood almost 90 years ago, is maintained by piping in drainwater and raw sewage. Last winter 150,000 eared grebes died at the Salton Sea. Infectious disease was ruled out as the cause. The grebes contained a level of selenium three times greater than that found in birds in 1989, and selenium poisoning is seen as a contributing factor in the massive kill.

For the last three years eared grebes nesting in the Tulare Basin, the site of the Kern and the Pixley national wildlife refuges, at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, have suffered complete reproductive failure. Some grebes nest on nearby evaporation ponds, which are man-made wastewater-collection sites. In a near-desert environment an evaporation pond acts as a magnet for wildlife, and what appears to be a welcoming oasis is, in fact, a death trap. Other birds that have suffered deformities or reproductive failure include mallard, northern pintail, gadwalls, redheads, American avocets, black-necked stilt and killdeers. The term ponds for these sites is a misnomer—lakes would be more accurate. There is enough selenium in many grebe eggs found on the evaporation ponds that border the Kern refuge to kill the embryos outright; other contaminants, such as sodium sulfates, are also suspected of killing embryos.

Though the mission of the U.S. Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service is "to conserve, protect, and enhance the nation's fish and wildlife and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the people," Fish and Wildlife officials have downplayed the importance of the drain-water problem and also have attempted to muzzle and punish their own scientists who have been working on the issue. "It's political science, not biological science, that rules at Interior," says Felix Smith, a 60-year-old biologist who in 1990 retired from the Fish and Wildlife Service after his warnings about the hazards of selenium in drainwater were ignored.

Though selenium is an essential element for growth, as little as 2.3 parts per billion of selenium in water is enough to make plants and invertebrates deadly to the waterfowl that eat them. Deposited by volcanic action in western North America millions of years ago, selenium is readily absorbed by certain plants, notably locoweed. The first known case of selenium poisoning occurred in 1857, when cavalry horses in the Nebraska Territory died after eating naturally contaminated pasturage. Cattle in many areas west of the Mississippi suffered from what ranchers called "alkali disease," which resulted in loss of hooves and hair, listlessness, liver lesions and death. But the cause of the disease remained a mystery until 1933, when W.O. Robinson, a U.S. Department of Agriculture chemist, identified it as selenium.

About 200,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi have naturally high levels of selenium, less than 12 inches of rainfall a year and a shallow water table. It is dangerous to irrigate land like this because fields must be drained to prevent crop roots from drowning, and the drainwater, laced with selenium and other toxins leached from the soil, is bound to end up causing difficulties somewhere else.

In 1941 U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists warned that the desertlike west side of the San Joaquin Valley contained high levels of selenium, and in '49 David Love, the grand old man of Rocky Mountain geology, wrote to the chief of the U.S. Geological Survey proposing a program to identify high-selenium lands: "If this program is properly effected it will save...millions of dollars, by preventing livestock deaths and human debility, preventing the raising of poisoned crops, eliminating poisoned pastures and preventing unwise investments in land and livestock." According to Love, the federal government, under pressure from real estate interests, rejected his proposal because it would depress the value of land with high selenium levels.

In the 1960s, at a cost to U.S. taxpayers of about $1.4 billion, the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation and California's Department of Water Resources built a system to bring irrigation water to the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. To carry off drainwater the Bureau of Reclamation in 1968 began constructing a canal, the San Luis Drain, from West-lands to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. For lack of funds, the project only got as far as the old Kesterson Ranch, a tract of land near Gustine that contained 1,280 acres of gouged-out ponds. In '70 the Fish and Wildlife Service also assumed management of that land, now called the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, and all went well until '78, when Westlands drainwater began flowing into the ponds. Gary Zahm, who was appointed refuge manager in '80, was struck by the absence of fish there—except for mosquito fish, a very hardy species. He reported this to his superiors, though his findings were not made public. In '82 Zahm got Michael Saiki, a Fish and Wildlife Service fishery biologist, to analyze the mosquito fish, and they turned out to have the highest levels of selenium ever found in any fish anywhere.

In 1980 Harry M. Ohlendorf, a wildlife research biologist who had been deputy director of Fish and Wildlife's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, in Laurel, Md., became leader of the center's Pacific Coast field station in Davis, Calif. In 1983 he and Smith began studying nesting birds at Kesterson. They found a high incidence of dead adults, dead embryos, deformed embryos and deformed young coots, ducks, cared grebes, black-necked stilt and killdeers. The birds had missing eyes, brains bulging through the tops of their skulls, misshapen wings and legs (or no wings or legs at all), and twisted bills.

Ohlendorf and Smith briefed the Fish and Wildlife Service's regional office in Portland, Ore., on these findings. After no action was taken, Smith wrote to the service's regional director, warning about possible violations at Kesterson of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibits the taking of birds except by regulated hunting. When Smith mentioned migratory birds in the draft of a larger memo on soil issues, Joe Blum, the regional deputy director, told Smith to delete those references, saying that the subject was "totally out of context—does not lend anything but a red flag to the people."

In 1984 virtually no nesting birds were seen at Kesterson. Instead, 16,000 adult birds died from selenium poisoning. In 1985 Blum attributed their deaths to "avian cholera." At the same time, ranchers whose lands bordered the refuge complained of headaches and upset stomachs and that their livestock were dying. One rancher, Jim Claus, alerted 60 Minutes, and in March 1985 the program reported on the horrors of Kesterson. Five days later Interior Department officials, calling Kesterson "an anomaly," ordered the refuge closed because of violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Fish and Wildlife personnel ran around the refuge firing shotgun blanks to frighten away birds. Later, automatic cannons firing every 30 seconds took over until Interior finally plugged the drain and filled in the ponds with earth, at a cost of $31 million.

Meanwhile, Harold O'Connor, a biologist who was then associate director for environment of Fish and Wildlife and is now director of the Patuxent research center, warned Smith and his colleagues not to talk to environmental groups. O'Connor also cautioned them against holding memberships in professional organizations. O'Connor docs not deny that Smith was gagged but says that it is the service's policy to have only one spokesman on controversial issues.

Despite Ohlendorf's years of outstanding research, Patuxent informed him that his prospects for promotion weren't good, and in 1990 he resigned to work for a consulting firm. Four months later, after spending the last five of his 34 years in the service working in a windowless office, Smith retired.

Joseph Skorupa, an avian ecologist who had been Ohlendorf's assistant, continued Ohlendorf's work. In 1987, when Skorupa began doing work on drainwater in the Tulare Basin, operators of evaporation ponds in the area allowed him to visit the sites to do research. But when he began finding dead and deformed bird embryos, some of the pond operators began limiting his access and, he says, tried to get his research funding ended. So far Skorupa has not been able to get unrestricted entry to many of the ponds; the Interior Department has taken the stance that its personnel do not have the right of access to private property even in the face of reported violations of federal law. In addition, Skorupa says, his superiors at Patuxent began harassing him, citing him for unauthorized use of letterhead and publishing articles that had not been cleared by his superiors. David L. Trauger, a biologist who is Patuxent's deputy director, says of Skorupa, "He was publishing his research in the newspapers instead of scientific journals, and we were very concerned about that."

Skorupa replies, "The press has never had access to any of my research data that was not officially approved for public release. What this charge is really about is that I do not follow the service's entrenched practice of dodging questions from the press on issues of public concern. When the press, representing the American public—my wage payers—asks for a scientifically based perspective on an issue, I try to fulfill my public-trust responsibilities by giving honest responses. If that's publishing in the press, I'm guilty."

Says Trauger, "Joe's job was to address the science and leave the policy-making to others."

The money for Skorupa's research in the Tulare Basin comes from the California Department of Water Resources. In 1991 Doug Buffington, an ecologist who is director of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Region 8, the designation given to Patuxent and all the service's other research centers and their field stations, declared that there would be no more federal funding for drainwater studies. Buffington says that he aggressively sought to obtain funding through the regular budget process or through a congressional appropriation but had been unsuccessful. Yet only a few months earlier a 26-member independent Blue Ribbon Panel (the term used by the Fish and Wildlife Service) of scientists and administrators who were invited to review Patuxent's operations had concluded in a scathing report in 1991, "Where there is clear direction from upper management, such as the decision to discontinue drainwater work, this direction appears to be motivated by politics rather than by science or merit...competent staff have been caught between their professional interpretations and the conservatism of the agency, which reflects the federal [Bush] administration's view. The [panel] especially commends the staff at the California field station for its work on drainwater.... These individuals paid a personal price for upholding good science in the face of heavy political, bureaucratic and social pressures."

Trauger blames Skorupa, whom he calls "one of our dissidents," for the assessment, even though it was Trauger himself who selected the members of the review panel. The report, says Trauger, "is old news. All our service managers and researchers have an open exchange of information and discussion of issues."

Says Carter, now a third-year student at the San Joaquin College of Law, "Anyone in Interior who dares speak the truth about what is really happening will be swiftly punished or driven from government service. The people in charge have abdicated their responsibilities to protect wildlife in favor of careerism, big agribusiness and political expediency.

"The morally corrupt politics of the Patuxent National Wildlife Research Center are disgusting beyond belief. These people...are political hacks with little if any concern for the disappearance of the Pacific Flyway. The U.S. Geological Survey, an Interior agency, has also kept its head in the sand over the extent and implications of selenium poisoning in the West. I can't wait to finish law school so I can fight this battle in court."

Adds Smith, "I don't know what the Clinton-Gore folks are going to do about the drainwater disaster—the Reagan-Bush people did nothing—but somewhere along the line, law enforcement is going to have to do the job, not just for wildlife but for humans as well."



Selenium was a major factor in the deaths of 150,000 eared grebes at California's Salton Sea.



Evaporation ponds, full of toxic drainwater, are a lethal magnet for birds in arid areas.



Skorupa (left) and Carter have tried their best to sound the alarm.



The drainwater toll includes this eyeless black-necked stilt.



Selenium runoff threatens the 500-mile-long Central Valley, as well as L.A.'s water supply.

San Joaquin Valley

San Joaquin River

Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge

San Luis Drain

Tulare Basin

Kern National Wildlife Refuge

Central Valley

Sacramento Valley

San Francisco

San Joaquin Valley

Los Angeles

Salton Sea