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DFF's Focus on Conservation with Ron Forbes

"I continually read of men who said they would be just as happy not catching trout as catching them. To me, that even then sounded like pious nonsense, and rather more of an excuse than a statement of fact. No, I want to catch them, and every time I slip on my waders and put on a fly, it is with this in mind."
 -- Brain Clarke

Felix Smith, a Lifetime of Achievment

The Northern California Council of the Federation of Fly Fishers (NCCFFF) hosted this year’s Festival of Fly Fishing at John Asquaga’s Nugget in Sparks Nevada early last October. The event was a success and Delta Fly Fishers were well represented in the seminars. Steve Cooper, Jerry Neuberger, Al Smatsky, Leo Gutterres, and Bob Fujimura put on seminars and gave graciously of their time and efforts helping to make the seminars a success. They represented Delta Fly Fishers well.

Periodically, at the banquet, NCCFFF gives a Lifetime Achievement Award. This is not an annual award but only given to a recipient who has made an outstanding contribution to our sport or our fisheries. This year the Council gave the award to Felix Smith. As Mr. Smith’s name was read as the winner and he approached the podium to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award, he received a well-deserved standing ovation. Felix Smith worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS) and in 1983 he was on a team of biologists who were sent to the Kesterson Wildlife Refuge to investigate concerns of the owners of a few grassland duck clubs and others who thought there was something seriously wrong with the environment in the northern grasslands. They were finding dead fish and dead and deformed birds throughout the area. Smith and his group investigated, and to his dismay found a deformed American coot hatching. This discovery was followed by finding 1,000’s of dead fish and dead and deformed birds. Upon investigation it was found that selenium was leaching from farms in the Westlands Water District. Smith had been assigned to look into the Kesterson situation and issues that were becoming known about agricultural wastewater and drainage. It turned out that the selenium leaching was the problem. As the agriculture waste water flowed into Kesterson Wildlife refuge, it moved up through the food chain, due to bioaccumulation, until it reached concentrations that killed fish and deformed or killed birds. It wasn’t the discovery of the selenium problem that got the award for Felix Smith... it is what he did afterwards.

Selenium is a naturally occurring non-metal that is necessary for human life but only in microscopic amounts. In larger amounts it is highly toxic. Safe levels of the element are about one part per billion. That’s approximately one drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. The levels at Kesterson were so high that thousands of birds were deformed, killed, or unable to reproduce. This was a huge environmental disaster. After a short period of time, it became apparent to Smith that neither the USF&WS nor their bosses at the Department of Interior were taking any action. They were, instead, doing there best to instigate a cover-up.

Felix Smith, however, is a man of integrity. During his acceptance speech he emphasized that those in positions like his are charged with protection the environment. It’s their duty to protect the trust the serve. His superiors at USFWS and the Dept. of the Interior didn’t have Smith’s integrity and chose the cover-up route. Their actions changed Smith’s life. Hugh pressure was put on him to go along with the cover-up. He was accused of “not being a team player,” and his superiors made his life a living hell. However, he lived by his principles and blew the whistle on what was going on at Kesterson. For months there were nightly newscasts on TV showing the deformed and dead birds and fish. Professional retribution against Smith continued for the rest of his career and he retired as soon as it was possible. He had served the USF&WS for 34 years. So much for his superiors taking protection of the public trust seriously or with integrity. When you look at the environmental and water issues confronting California, their attitude continues. Operating “to uphold the public trust” is not found in most of the state or federal agencies today.

The issues with chemicals and salts in agricultural wastewater drainage is not a new issue. In 1960 the Dept. of Water Resources (DWR) did an investigation of water quality in the lower San Joaquin Valley. The investigations involved the drainage water containing salts, sodium, selenium, sulfates, boron, mercury, and other trace elements. Nothing has been done to address these problems due to DWR and other agencies’ inaction.

It’s now 28 years after Kesterson and still no resolution to the problems. The agricultural land is owned by Westland farmers, and one of the solutions purposed has been the retirement of the contaminated land. Another solution would be to fine agribusiness for their pollution, or if they continue to pollute they would forfeit their subsidized water rights. However, as you will recall from a former conservation report, agribusiness has received a variance from having to comply with the state’s Clean Water Act. So they continue to pollute. The area of contamination is estimated from between 100,000-250,000 acres. Several years ago Westland’s was starting negations to sell that land to the government. The land could be farmed with dry land agriculture, but without water the land is virtually worthless. Westland’s wanted over $6,000 per acre. Without water, the land is worth less than $1,000 per acre. If Westland’s sells 250,000 acres and gets their price, we the taxpayers, would pay $1.5 billion for totally useless land. Westland also wants to maintain their pre-issued water rights that land. The obvious reason, of course, is to continue to sell water at a huge profit. In a talk given by Smith several years ago, he pointed out that for each acre retired from production between 2 and 3.5 acre feet of water could be saved or 200,000 to 350,000 acre feet of water for 100,000 acres. It would also reduce 60,000 to 80,000 acre feet of waste water and drainage for each 100,000 acres. Also for each acre removed from production up to 60 pounds of pesticides per acre will not be generated. The quality of water in the south-western San Joaquin Valley will continue to deteriorate until the drainage and waste water problems are resolved.

We need more people like Felix Smith.


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