California fishing and conservation groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday in federal court, accusing farmers of illegally discharging polluted groundwater into tributaries of the San Joaquin River.
The suit is the latest move in a decades-long battle over selenium-tainted farmland and agricultural drainage problems on the western side of the San Joaquin Valley.
The suit claims the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority allowed contaminated groundwater to co-mingle with irrigation drain water.
The mixture was then discharged without a federal wastewater permit into a canal and a slough that feed to the San Joaquin River and San Francisco Bay-Delta, the lawsuit states.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Lynnette Wirth declined to comment on the litigation.
In a press release, officials with the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority said the lawsuit wastes taxpayers' money and fails to recognize the benefits of a federal water project that's used to manage agricultural drainage.
Any facility that discharges wastewater directly to surface water must obtain a wastewater discharge permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or the state. While irrigation drain water is exempt from the permitting process, polluted groundwater isn't.
The San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority is made up of 29 districts, seven of which discharge agricultural runoff into the San Luis Drain and the Mud Slough, a tributary of the San Joaquin River.
That polluted groundwater, according to the suit, is harmful to threatened fish species and contaminates the drinking water used by millions of Californians.
Soils and groundwater in the area are contaminated with selenium and other chemicals such as boron and mercury.
Selenium is highly toxic to fish and wildlife. In the 1980s, millions of birds were born deformed after nesting at Kesterson Wildlife Refuge, where the government routed selenium-laced agricultural runoff.
While selenium is a naturally occurring element, irrigation causes it to leach from the soil.
After the Kesterson die-off, the Bureau of Reclamation - which runs a massive irrigation complex that makes farming possible in the arid valley - ceased pumping agricultural drainage water into wildlife refuges and wetlands.
Since 1996, the federal Grasslands Water Project - which serves the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority - has discharged agricultural irrigation water into the canal and the slough. Some of the drainage water is also reused to water 6,000 acres of salt-resistant crops.
The project is a successful model, because it has reduced drainage discharges, said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition. It has been endorsed by state and federal agencies, Wade said.
Environmental groups claim that because the water project collects its discharge water from tile drainage systems, it necessarily discharges polluted groundwater along with irrigation water, and that discharge should be regulated with a permit.
A federal permit would require that officials comply with water quality standards, said Bill Jennings of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, one of the parties to the lawsuit.
The fishing and conservation groups also claim selenium continues to harm birds and wildlife. They point to a deformed bird embryo found in 2008 in the Panoche re-use area, where drainage water is discharged to irrigate salt-tolerant crops and to reduce toxic drainage volumes.
The deformities of the embryo exhibited the effects of exposure to high selenium concentrations, according to a Department of Fish and Wildlife report. It's the only such embryo found in a decade of monitoring.
"There's an assumption that Kesterson had the deformed birds and that pollution has been cleaned up, but that's just not the case," Jennings said.
Jennings acknowledged that farmers in the area have made progress by instituting practices to reduce discharges. But the problem of what to do with the polluted water remains, he said.
After the Kesterson disaster, the government scrapped plans to build a huge drain to carry the runoff out to sea.
Irrigators sued in the mid-1990s, claiming federal officials reneged on their obligation to help them dispose of the tainted water.
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