U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Research Service, Lincoln, Nebraska


Date of this Version


Document Type



Agricultural Research, January 2012


Ancient seas that once covered the area left behind marine sediments, shale formations, and deposits of selenium and other minerals. Anything grown there needs to be irrigated, but the resulting runoff, when it contains high levels of selenium, can be toxic to fish, migratory birds, and other wildlife that drink from waterways and drainage ditches. Selenium runoff is subject to monitoring by regional waterquality officials. Periodic droughts and population growth are also squeezing supplies of the fresh water available for irrigation.

“We need to find a way to keep the land productive, but that becomes difficult when you have environmental concerns stemming from soils with these mineral deposits,” says Gary Bañuelos, an Agricultural Research Service plant/soil scientist with the Water Management Research Unit at the San Joaquin Valley Agricultural Sciences Center in Parlier.

Bañuelos believes that he has found a promising alternative: prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficusindica), a drought-tolerant plant. Bañuelos’s studies show that certain cacti tolerate salty soil and take up selenium from it. “We’re hoping to produce a new crop on unproductive land and slowly manage the selenium content of the soil in the process of growing it,” Bañuelos says.