Uncovering Poison and Paradox in Western Wetlands

By Scott Allan Stevens. Scott Allan Stevens is on the Monitor . | The Christian Science Monitor, March 5, 1992 | Go to article overview

Uncovering Poison and Paradox in Western Wetlands


Scott Allan Stevens. Scott Allan Stevens is on the Monitor ., The Christian Science Monitor


THE mighty irrigation schemes of California's Central Valley Project, begun in the 1930s, turned arid land in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys into an agricultural cornucopia. But in doing so, they intensified a chemical threat that could end the agricultural productivity of much of the western United States. "Death in the Marsh," by Tom Harris, is in part a record of the discovery of that threat.

The book opens at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in 1983, which became the repository for runoff water from some San Joaquin Valley farms in 1975. Two government biologists canoeing through a Kesterson marsh are uneasy at the unnatural silence, startled by the sterile clarity of the marsh water, and finally shocked by the discovery of many dead, deformed hatchlings in the few waterfowl nests. Laboratory tests show that the element selenium is poisoning the birds.

Selenium occurs naturally in a type of marine shale commonly found in the arid West. Beneficial in tiny amounts, it can be toxic to plants, animals, and even humans in larger doses.

Prompted by the findings, Harris and another environmental reporter for the Sacramento Bee surveyed sites throughout the western United States and discovered large amounts of the element. Death, they found, was not only in the marsh, but on the prairie, in fishing holes, and in selenium-concentrating vegetation. The investigation was the start of what Harris calls "the equivalent of an agricultural Superfund in the West."

In revealing dangerous levels of the element over thousands of square miles in 15 states, the reporters uncovered paradox as well as poison. Ranchers were losing livestock, garden plants, and even domestic pets. Families often suffered ill effects from locally obtained food and water. …

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