An Environmental Disaster I helped Create; 43 years ago, Still felt Today.

History is a funny thing, it involves all of us. Getting older frees up a lot of time to think back on some of the events that shaped our lives. I’ve never been an instrumental figure in any event other than a participant or observer, looking back there have been many.

Some of them occur under our noses without realizing something is actually happening, let alone a historical event. One issue that is overlooked is someone has to make it happen, whether knowingly or not as a participant. Such is the subject of this blog, a historical event that ended up 30 years later a major issue in the California Water War.

The last blog was written about my first job at a gas station a few weeks after returning from the Teenagers War in 1973, I left that job for this one.

I rode my bicycle the 5 miles from the shack I called home to the Well Drilling Companies yard. It was a dusty, 2-3 acres packed with equipment, the smell of oil, diesel fuel, and rubber hung in the air beneath an overcast sky. It was just after daybreak but the place was already filled with activity, a huge man walked up to me, shook my hand and told me to follow him.

His name was Jean, 6’8″ tall, weighing 300+ pounds, he told me I’m on his crew. Pointing to a 150-pound jackhammer he told me to grab it and toss it in the truck he motioned to. “That’s your’s, take care of it,” he told me then added, “jump in”.

Taking the passengers side of the well worn late model truck trying to place my feet on something other than the junk on the floorboard. “We’re going to take a look at the next job,” he said, “It’s just about 5 miles away, down the highway.”

Leaving the two-lane road we turned left onto another that could easily have been an extension of the one we were on. Driving a few minutes Jean turned right then sped across a barren plot of land, clouds of dust rose behind us. He stopped the truck, placed it in park then told me to jump out. I did just that, upon hitting the ground I sunk to my knees in the fine silty dust.

Looking into the distance all that was visible was sand, and gravel, completely covered with white alkali, Selenium, Salt in other words. “We’re going to drill right here,” he said, “until we hit the water.”
It looked like a desert to me, nothing can grow in salt, after expressing that to him Jean replied. “That’s what we’re drilling here for, all of this Alkali needs to be washed into the drain.” I won’t disclose the location because it is still after all of these years a political hot potato, I’ll explain:

It was Central California, the big valley where farming was and is king, more land was being reclaimed. 8-10 feet below the surface lies a layer of “hardpan”, Clay, it depends upon where in the Valley it is but it ranges from 4-10 feet thick. Below it is a layer of peat, sand, and gravel, the stuff that is left behind when an ancient sea retreats. That layer can be 5-20 feet thick, again depending upon where it is. The Clay acts as the bottom of a swimming pool, rainwater can penetrate it but it takes eons for it to do so.

Water collects above the first layer causing the salts to rise to the surface where it turns white, it took place for millions of years. Replenishing the aquifer is a long process.

The drain is a system of perforated piping laid on top of the first layer of clay, the water, and alkaline enter it. From there it is directed to another larger pipe at the end of what will become the farmers’ field. From there it flows into the mainline, then eventually to what is called the “Westside bypass”. From there the water and Selenium are sent 100 miles north to the Kesterson Wildlife Sanctuary to be pumped into the ponds.

That well was drilled along with many others. The largest wells we drilled were 4 of them 2,000 feet deep, 36 inches in diameter, that is a huge water well. Most of them were 1/2 that size at most, many much smaller. They all had the same purpose, grow crops sure, but more importantly, get rid of the alkali.

The last well I worked on was six months later, at the Kesterson Wildlife area, we had to drill one more to help the water flow to the end. The refuge is in the middle of no-where, some find it hard to believe there are isolated places in California; I promise you there are many.

There was a problem with the job, I worked 6pm-6am, we had been away from home for 3 weeks. All of our food, lodging, and other needs were paid for by us, to be re-embursed by the company when we dragged in. Payday was once a week, as can be imagined under those circumstances the crew needed their paychecks. We did not get one the entire 3 weeks, we were hungry, dirty, tired, and getting increasingly angrier.

It all came to a head at 3 am one morning when Jean got on the radio to ask when our checks would be here. “We’re looking for Bill,” was the answer. Bill was the yard mechanic, they sent him with cash money two weeks ago. He was holed up in town partying and staying drunk on our money.

“You can’t find him?” Jean asked he knew there would be a problem. “You’ve been telling us for two weeks it would be here tonight,” he answered back. It was the last straw for me and my partner “Rose”, another newly returned war veteran. “We’re leaving,” he said to which I added, “I’m with him.”

It was 10 miles to the road, then another 15 miles to the main road, we hitch-hicked the 100 miles back home. The next morning I walked into the main office to get my check, “you really let us down,” the boss said, to which I answered, “I let you down?” A brief argument ensued, he handed me the check I turned and left. Two weeks later he called to ask if I wanted to come back to work, I told him I’m getting out of this one-horse town and going to Fresno, a two-horse town.

For thirty years that alkali drained into the Nature Preserve, I was living in the Southern California Desert when I spied an article in the newspaper. “Kesterson Game Preserve declared a super fund clean up site.”

The Selenium had polluted the ponds so badly two-headed frogs, Ducks with three legs and numerous other deformities suffered by the wildlife in the refuge became every night news. It was an environmental disaster, I was a part of it many years previous.

The battle started, 5 years later I moved North to where I now reside on the Delta. Knots can be tied in many ways, sometimes it’s hard to find two ends to make it. 25 years had passed since I walked off that drilling platform into the night, that was the first end. The second end was found when I began living next to the river, this is where they planned to pump the toxic water with the idea it would flow to the ocean.

It formed a loop, the water was sent to the Central Valley to water the crops, then drained North ladened with impurities. Now to complete the circle the idea was to pollute the Delta, it was fought tooth and nail. There is no Victor, Kesterson is still polluted, that water is still there, water is still going South to be returned to the Game Preserve.

I was 22 years old when we drilled that well on the preserve, I’m 68 now, the problem persists 46 years later. I really wish there was a funny or feel-good conclusion, but it won’t be resolved until well after I’m gone, perhaps never.

People native to this state ask me how I understand the water wars so well, not being from here. It’s a long educational process that cannot be taught in any school, I have lived it, this is just one chapter, I’ve written about it often.

Climate change? Yeh, it’s happening the root cause? Not fossil fuels, or CO2, the answer is an ancient unsolvable reality; Greed.

Jacques Lebec Natural Self Reliance

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