A four-year-old survey of problems in national wildlife refuges has come back to haunt the Interior Department, thanks to the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in California, where toxic drainage water from irrigated fields has been blamed for killing and maiming waterfowl.
The survey, which was conducted in 1981 although it wasn't published until after the 1982 elections, indicates that more than a fourth of the nation's 410 wildlife refuges suffer from toxic pollution and at least half have other water-quality problems as well.
Interior officials say that none of the damaged refuges is in a league with Kesterson, where thousands of grebes, stilts, coots and herons have died or produced deformed chicks because of heavy concentrations of selenium, a naturally occurring element that is washed into the refuge with farm drain water.
"That was a case of a 'smoking pollutant,' " said Interior spokesman Alan Levitt.
But the variety of problems identified by refuge managers illustrates the increasing pressures on wildlife refuges, not just from chemical invasions but from other manmade pollutants as well.
The survey also raises a potential legal dilemma for the department. Interior Secretary Donald Hodel took action at Kesterson because of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which makes it a criminal offense to kill waterfowl out of season.
"If a private company had developed a large lake like that that was so deadly, we would prosecute them criminally for that," said Interior official Ron Lambertson. "We aren't aware of that kind of potential in other wildlife refuges."
Other department officials aren't so confident, noting that scientists don't have a very good fix yet on how environmental pollutants affect waterfowl. In California, for instance, thousands of birds die each year from botulism and avian cholera, which many scientists believe is related to poor water quality.
According to the survey, the most commonly cited water-quality problem is soil erosion from nearby farmlands, which is filling streams with sediment at 222 refuges. Fertilizer runoff was degrading water in 186 refuges; in 143 refuges, water had been contaminated with sewage.
Energy development is permitted in refuges where it is deemed not to have an unreasonable impact on wildlife, and 146 of the refuge managers said they had a problem with oil spills. Twelve cited acidic drainage from mines, and 97 complained about "oil and gas extraction" in general.
Toxic pollutants -- from industrial drainage to agricultural chemicals -- were even more of a headache at some refuges. For example, the Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge, a chain of small islands in the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon, traced a disastrous loss in nesting Canada geese to heptachlor, a potent agricultural chemical that has been banned for most uses.
Heptachlor is still used as a seed treatment for wheat and other small grains, which are widely grown in the area. Biologists found that geese foraging in newly seeded farm fields were being poisoned by the chemical, leading to a 40 to 50 percent nesting loss at the refuge.
Washington and Oregon have since banned the use of heptachlor-treated grain near Umatilla, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials, but solutions at other refuges may prove to be more difficult. The Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge near Marion, Ill., for example, was established on a former military reservation that turned out to be a toxic waste dump.
Congress appropriated $8 million in fiscal 1985 to help Interior clean up its refuges, and the department expects another appropriation this year. But much of the money has been funneled into a host of problems that are not related to pollution, such as deteriorating roads and visitor facilities. TURNING UP THE HEAT . . . While its brethren in the department continue to tout big-scale oil, gas and coal leasing, Interior's Bureau of Land Management says it wants to do its part for alternative energy sources. The bureau plans to more than double the amount of federal land it will lease for geothermal development.
Interior's interest in geothermal energy, derived by tapping the earth's internal heat, has been a contentious issue in the past. Environmentalists worry that overzealous development in some areas could wreak havoc with such natural phenomena as Yellowstone National Park's geysers and bubbling sulfur pools.
Under current rules, a company may lease up to 20,480 acres in a single state for geothermal projects. BLM Director Robert F. Burford said that is "unrealistically low" and he wants to make it 51,200 acres.