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Water quality board steps in to test Smith River wells

An Easter Lily farmer sprays his field. Tests are under way now by the state to see if local wells are affected by the use of chemicals and fertilizers in Smith River. (Stephen M. Corley/ The Daily Triplicate).
An Easter Lily farmer sprays his field. Tests are under way now by the state to see if local wells are affected by the use of chemicals and fertilizers in Smith River. (Stephen M. Corley/ The Daily Triplicate).

By Jennifer Grimes

Triplicate staff writer

More water was drawn from the Smith River aquifer yesterday to determine whether farm chemical use there has significantly contaminated the groundwater.

This round of testing is conducted by the state's Regional Water Quality Control Board following closely on the heels of testing June 14 by the environmental group Smith River Project.

"We are here to do ongoing monitoring and we happen to have enough money in our budget this year to conduct these tests now. This is not in reaction to the Smith River Project's activities," said Lisa Bernard, a scientist for the water quality control board here collecting samples from about 18 Smith River-area wells.

The water quality board has been paying close attention to Smith River wells since the the early 1980s when two farm chemicals were found at high levels in some irrigation and drinking wells.

One of those chemicals, 1,2-Dichloropropane was still detected as recently as last August by the board, but at levels below the maximum levels set by the federal government, 5 parts per billion.

Bernard said collecting samples this week is intended to determine whether 1,2-D levels are continuing to drop and to check for the presence of any other chemicals that may threaten public health. No other chemicals have been detected in Smith River groundwater tests in recent years, however, according to RWQCB test results.

At each of the wells Bernard tested yesterday, she filled four glass jars about the size of a quart and seven smaller containers. Each will be used to test a different group of similar chemicals.

Before filling the jars, she slipped on surgical gloves. After the caps were secured on each container, she carefully placed them in a cooler packed with ice.

She said she will hand deliver the samples to North Coast Labs in Arcata and she expects the results within two to four weeks.

About 100 chemicals including 1,2-D will be tested for.

Samples were taken from the Smith River Community Services District water system and some wells at private, non-farming homes in addition to the farm wells.

Tests done earlier this month by the Sonoma-based Smith River Project found one of the 14 wells they tested to be 5.6 parts per billion, registering just over the federal limit of 5 parts per billion.

However, the director of the group, Greg King, does not have the test results in writing from his hired laboratory yet and has not reported the numbers to state or county health departments.

If test results show chemical levels above federal standards, it will be up to the departments of health to take action, according to the director of the Regional Water Quality Control Board, Tuck Vath.

"Any number we find above the level of concern is reported to the county and state health departments. They make the judgement on what to do," Vath said.

King and his group began a campaign last month on both the Internet and in the media to raise awareness about potential chemical overuse by Smith River lily bulb farmers.

He contends the farm chemicals may be damaging the health of local residents as well as the fish in the river.

Owner of Hastings Bulb Farms, Harry Harms, said King's claims are not likely true.

"You would think that if it was affecting people's health, the farm workers and owner/operators would be the poster boys for whatever defects," Harms said.

All 300-or-so farmworkers in Smith River are trained upon hiring, and then yearly, to work with and around pesticides safely, Harms said.

Owners and operators of the farms are also tested yearly by the Department of Agriculture.

"They make sure we know what we're supposed to teach workers and how to dispose of containers properly, among other things," said Harms.

King has been pushing the conversion of the farms from using chemicals to organic farming.

Don Crockett of Crockett United Lily Bulb Farms is a third-generation farmer and said so far organic methods haven't worked.

"Most people don't know how much research we do, and pay for, ourselves. We have 50 years of data and ongoing research," using computer models and the latest technology, said Crockett.

Computer models, using data about the soil stability specific to Smith River, as well as the water table data and other factors, have shown organic methods do not fight off the lily bulb's main predator, the nematode worm.

So far, each organic method plugged into the computer models and used in actual trials, has shown that at least 50 percent or more of each crop is lost to the worms, according to Lee Riddle, a biologist and researcher hired by a group of lily bulb farms.

That means 50 percent or more of each investment is lost, he said.

King said earlier this week he plans to extend his campaign to soil testing and tests of the Smith River itself. He also is waiting for studies, now under way by Humboldt University graduate students, on fish populations in the estuary.

Previous tests of water samples from the Smith River by King's group were inconclusive, he said.

 


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