Cactus may give Calif. farmers a cure for poisoned crop land

The prickly pear cactus may not sound like a trendy cash crop, but it could become a phenomenon among farmers on the arid west side of California's San Joaquin Valley.

The cactus can grow in the west-side's salty soils, drink briny water and live just fine in very dry times. But the real attraction: As it grows, the cactus slowly absorbs and cleans up a chemical villain in the soil _ selenium.

Selenium in irrigation drainage widely killed and maimed wildlife during the 1980s at Kesterson Reservoir on the Valley's west side. Before that, selenium was known only as an essential natural element in animals and people, in small doses.

Then The Bee broke the story about mega-doses of selenium causing the disaster and suddenly, The New York Times and "60 Minutes" were on the case. West-side agriculture has been scrambling for a cleanup ever since.

No silver bullet has been found yet, partly because the problem is more than just selenium. West side land also is slowly being poisoned by salts from irrigation water that can't be drained away.

But the stakes are too high to give up, farmers say. It's about saving a billon-dollar farm belt nearly half the size of Yosemite National Park.

Read the full story at fresnobee.com.

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