Lloyd Carter

In the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Recorded: March 29, 2013

Lloyd G. Carter, a former UPI and Fresno journalist, broke the 1982 news story about the selenium poisoning at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley in Central California.  Lloyd divides his career as pre-Kesterson and post-Kesterson because of the impact this issue has had on his life's work. His story, told in biblical terms, enlightens all of us about the selenium soil contamination in this important agricultural area of the Central Valley. Lloyd's story is about politics, soils, drainage and what the future holds for California agriculture, water, and wildlife in the San Joaquin Valley.

Lloyd G. Carter is a retired UPI and Fresno Bee journalist. In his 35 years of reporting he has become an authority on California water resources and courageously reports on corruption related to water.

In 1982, Lloyd was investigating a story of dead and deformed birds near the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, which is located in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley in central California.  Lloyd interviewed the neighbors of the refuge and saw firsthand what they were dealing with. After breaking the news and following this story for many years, Lloyd reported news that the cause of the deaths were from the San Luis Drain which was created to divert the drainage from agricultural lands because the salt was building up on the farms. This drainage had been diverted into the man-made Kesterson Reservoir where the selenium concentrated in its shallow ponds.

Mr. Carter currently hosts the blog The Chronicles of the Hydraulic Brotherhood found at http://lloydcarter.com. He is President of the California Save Our Streams Council and is also a board member of the Underground Gardens Conservancy. Lloyd hosts a monthly radio show on KFCF, 88.1 FM in Fresno.

Lloyd Carter:    It’s not easy to be an environmentalist in this valley because you’re costing people money, right? And the money is the god they worship.

Huey Johnson:    Lloyd Carter, welcome.

Lloyd Carter:    Thank you.

Huey Johnson:    I look forward to talking to you.  I have a real deep concern about water in California and it’s future, and you’ve lived, as you’ve said, in the belly of the beast, in the Central Valley where the problems emanate from.  Can you tell me about your interest in environment, how it came about in your life?

Lloyd Carter:    Yeah, you know, you can kind of carve up my worldview pre-Kesterson and post-Kesterson.  I would say I was a conventional journalist until 1984, which is when – well, late ’83 is when Kesterson first broke into the news, which of course was the wildlife refuge in Merced County, where the Westlands Water District– the biggest federal water district in the nation– was sending its wastewater. And they made the discoveries in ’82 and ’83 that the fish and the birds at the refuge were dying because this drainage water was toxic.

And so, in the spring of 1984 I got to meet Jim Klaus.  Jim and Karen Klaus had a ranch adjacent to Kesterson, and Frank and Jeanette Freitas also, they had a 5,000 acre ranch that was sandwiched between Kesterson and the San Joaquin River.  Got on out of my car and there were dead birds all around. It seemed to me hundreds of dead birds floating on one of the evaporation ponds. There were dead birds in Jeanette’s front yard, and well, actually there was a dead bird on the porch.  And I walked up, you know, knocked on the door and I was…I was in awe.

One particular element in the soil, selenium, was highly toxic and dangerous to animals.  Selenium has a very sulfurous smell, so the whole place smelled like rotten eggs.  A marsh that’s full of life is very noisy, but this place was quiet. And so Jeanette answered the door, and you know, she said, “Welcome to my world.”  Well, that’s when the scales were lifted from my eyes and I could not turn back.  I could not ignore it and I got involved. That was the turning point for me.  I was writing stories there for a while almost every day about Kesterson, and of course, I continued to write for the last, almost 30 years now.

Huey Johnson:    What’s been the evolution of it in those 30 years?

Lloyd Carter:    It continued to become a bigger and bigger story.  The San Jose Mercury News did a big story in the fall of 1983, and of course what captured public attention was photographs of these deformed bird embryos.  It was the thalidomide scandal of the natural world.  And what happened was, they had about a year and a half to drain the ponds, ironically they drained them into the San Joaquin River, and cover up the–tear down the levees–and they carried in a cubic million yards of dirt.  This was about a thirty million dollar cleanup project.  And then, Westlands ever since then,1986, have been without drainage. And if you know anything about farming in an alkali desert, you’ve got to take your salts out or the land slowly salts up.  It’s what happened in Mesopotamia. It’s what happened in numerous sanctioned civilizations. 

We couldn’t figure out how to solve the salt balance problem, which is the problem that Westlands faces to this very day. How in God’s name can this state allow Westlands, 30 years after Kesterson, to keep farming these toxic soils?  I think to solve the drainage crisis you look at the geological survey studies. You need to take about half the land out of production in Westlands, which would be 300,000 acres and you idle the high selenium soils.  Well, that would do two things, one, that would free up a lot of water.  Westlands would then have enough water to farm 300,000 acres and we resolve the problem for them.  For 30 years, they’ve been fighting to keep every salty acre.  Some in the last few years now, they’ve taken 100,000 acres out of production, because they salted it up and it’s just too expensive to rehabilitate it so they could farm it again.  And you know, I always found it ironic that as a young journalist I wasn’t interested in the farm beat, or you know, no self-respecting journalist wanted to cover this dull stuff.  And the irony of course, it’s the most important thing of all, the production of the food for the country and how that process through industrialized agriculture was ruining the land, you know, ruining the air, ruining the water.

Here we are in 2013 and the San Joaquin Valley, well it is a great agricultural empire, it’s also the poorest place in America.  We have the most hunger.  We have the most childhood asthma.  Drinking water supplies are polluted.  Our air quality is some of the worst in the nation.  Thirty to forty percent of the people have respiratory problems. So the great agricultural empire has turned out to have a very heavy cost.  So it’s the Valley of the Shadow of Death.  You know, people are throwing money out of it, but they’re leaving behind a wasteland.

Huey Johnson:    The current Westlands operation must be pretty vital, because I noticed the executive director is the highest paid state employee in the state: $400,000 a year or something.

Lloyd Carter:    $417,000, yeah, for a water district with 600 farmers. And that group of growers in the Westlands is probably the most powerful group of farmers in the country.  They’ve made tons of money out there with the cheap water, with the cheap power to deliver the water, and with all the other tax breaks, crop subsidies, etcetera, etcetera. They spend a lot of money on politics.  They spend a lot of money on lobbyists.  They’re essentially all Republicans, but they give to both sides.

Jim Costa is the congressman down there, he’s a Democrat.  They give money to him.  They give a lot of money to Dianne Feinstein as the senior senator in California.  And you know the Westlands is a good example of how the definition of a farmer has changed.  We think of the American Gothic farmer in overalls farming his granddaddy’s farm, maybe they’ve got two or three hundred acres.

What we have now is billionaires, or multi-multi-millionaires that come in and farm huge blocks of land.  Kesterson was a turning point, because I don’t care how politically powerful, you can’t grow food in salty soil. And everything always comes back to the salt balance problem.

Huey Johnson:    What’s the scene going to look like in the Valley in ten years at that rate?

Lloyd Carter:    The Congressional Research Service just came out with a report on drought in the West. If the climate modelers are correct, things are going to get much drier in the Sacramento River watershed and the San Joaquin [River] watershed, as well as the American Southwest, including the Colorado River.  When that starts to happen, you’re going to really see water wars, because things are going to get desperate for people.  In ten years, the Valley continues to urbanize, like two and a half, three acres every hour, is converted from agriculture to urban or, you know, subdivisions.  So as a great food-producing region, it’s going to dwindle.  And the ones that are going to get rich off of that are farmers who sell their land. But their water rights are probably worth more than the land.  And there’s a lot of farmers who are sick and tired of trying to hang on being farmers. And they’re thinking that is the gold ring, you know, “I’m going to sell my water allotment to an urban water district in Southern California and get me millions of bucks and go and retire and live in Hawaii.”  That’s the ballgame, that’s what’s continuing to happen now–agriculture.  And there’s a lot of guys in agriculture that want to keep farming, enjoy farming, and all the good values that we associate with farming, they’re fighting a losing battle.  Judas is among their ranks, and it’s always the farmer that sells out his own industry to make a quick buck.  That’s how, you know, this creeping encroachment of urbanization into agriculture.  The water’s worth…the water is the cash crop and it’s worth more money than the crop produced.

After writing millions of words about Kesterson drainage, I boiled it down to three words: “life is drainage.”  If you don’t take care of your drainage problems, whether they be personal or societal, you know, you’re in big trouble.

Well, what we’ve done to California, Americans, since we showed up in 1849, has pretty much trashed the state.  You know, we logged the hell out of it.  We’re paying to this very day for the gold mining operations, and the hydraulic mining operations, and the use of mercury back in those days.  We’ve killed our rivers, we’ve made a mess of things, and that’s because the only ethic that operates was greed.  Ultimately, you boil it down, it’s real simple, the rape of California was all about greed and lust for riches.

The irony in the Valley here, is the really good land along the rivers and on the east side is being urbanized, and so we’re saving the poorest land on the west side, you know, to continue to grow crops.  And there’s no – they call it progress, right?  In my book it’s not progress but it is greed moving ahead.