Coho plan has county up in arms

By Emily Jo Cureton and Adam Spencer, Triplicate staff writers April 02, 2012 11:18 am

Supervisors fearful of farm restrictions

Farming in Smith River can hurt federally protected fish populations, according to a draft coho salmon recovery plan from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

On Tuesday the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors took stock of the proposal to increase coho numbers in the county’s watersheds, sizing up the science behind the plan and the economic impact its findings could have.

The public draft of the Southern Oregon Northern California Coast Coho Salmon Recovery Plan tags agriculture on the Smith River floodplain as “the greatest contributor to loss and degradation of coho salmon habitat” in the Smith River watershed.

“There’s a bullseye on ag,” Supervisor David Finigan said of Del Norte’s part in a 1,400-page regional snapshot of the coho situation from Southern Oregon to Mendocino County.

It’s open for public comment until May 4.

“The plan itself has no regulatory authority. It’s possible that regulations could result from the plan, but that’s beyond the scope of the plan itself,” Julie Weeder, Marine Fisheries Service recovery coordinator, told supervisors.

“We’ve heard this before. It’s like saying, ‘We’re going to put this toddler together with a book of matches and there might not be a fire.’ But reality-wise this is probably going to lead to regulations and laws,” countered Supervisor Mike Sullivan after Weeder’s presentation.

While agriculture is designated as the chief degrader of Smith River coho habitat, the draft plan pinpoints roads and diking as principal threats to the species.

The Endangered Species Act listed Southern Oregon’s and Northern California’s coho as threatened in 1997, which required NMFS to create a region-wide recovery plan. It sets population targets and provides recommendations as to how people can voluntarily help the effort. The large population of coho in the Smith River watershed is considered especially important for preserving the species as a whole, said Weeder.

The draft plan says the Smith’s cohos are at a high risk of extinction, partly because of impaired water quality in the lower watershed and estuary, where the fish come of age before they migrate to the ocean.

While current estimates of the abundance and distribution of the coho are unknown for the Smith River watershed as a whole, the plan sets a new target of 6,800 spawners annually.

A polluted Smith?

The draft plan says there is impaired water quality in the lower Smith due to agricultural and road run-off, citing two scientific sources in support of this. It singles out the use of pesticides and fungicides in lily bulb farming, an industry covering about 4,000 acres of Del Norte’s coastal plain and producing 90 percent of the lily bulbs in the United States.

Very little state water quality testing has occurred in recent years anywhere near Smith River’s lily bulb farms, according to David Leland, spokesman for the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The only test Leland knew of happening in the floodplain in this decade is one of the sources NMFS cites in the draft coho recovery plan — a one-day sampling from 2010, performed by the board in response to repeated requests by a land trust called the Siskiyou Land Conservancy and its executive director, Greg King.

One of four surface samples taken in the lower watershed revealed high levels of copper occurring downstream from a lily bulb farm. Copper is an active ingredient in fungicides applied to lily bulb fields.

The amount of copper detected was 28 times the legal limit prescribed by the California Toxins Rule and about 16 times the amount of copper found upstream, according to the sampling analysis. In the lab, the same copper-heavy sample also caused reproductive toxicity in small invertebrate organisms, commonly known as water fleas, which young salmon like to eat.

Leland said “there could be” pollutants in the lower Smith, but that this sampling was very limited in scope.

Harry Harms owns and co-manages Smith River Farms Inc. and is the general manager for Hastings Bulb Growers, Inc. — both companies grow lily bulbs in the Smith River floodplain.

Since the copper test results came out in August of last year, Harms said lily bulb farmers have been working with the regional Water Quality Control Board in developing a way to mitigate pollution and control erosion. He predicts copper is getting into Delilah Creek (the tributary of the Smith where copper was detected), by way of sediment.

Pesticide use increases

The other scientific source cited in the coho recovery plan was a four-year study published in 2002, led by independent scientists and funded by the Smith River Project, which was also headed by Greg King at the time.

The study did not deal with water samples, but found that the amount of pesticides applied in Del Norte “exceeded the federal government’s established level of concern for endangered aquatic organisms for four of the five pesticides studied.”

This study stated that Del Norte used more pounds of certain pesticides per acre than any other county in California and that “virtually all of the pesticide concentration is occurring within the approximately 11-square-mile area of the Smith River floodplain.”

Harms said he objects to NMFS use of the 2002 study, since it has never been peer-reviewed and was privately funded.

“It’s loaded with supposition and these guys are trying to basically use data that connects dots,” said Harms, adding that the study did not actually test water. “They’re saying since we use it, it must be there.”

He believes the figures pegging Del Norte as using the most pesticides per acre are misleading, because lily bulb farmers plant on a four-year rotation. Only 25 percent of a farmer’s land is planted at one time, in contrast to other farmers who plant multiple crops on the same plot every year, creating a cocktail of chemicals on land that is never allowed to rest, Harms said.

“To declare the Smith, the healthiest watershed in California, impaired, would just shake up everything. We don’t necessarily want that, but it points to a significant issue on the Smith that we need to address. The lily farmers need to address it and they are,” King said.

“The Smith is the one place in California where we can provide nearly universal healthy habitat for salmon for recovery, and the estuary is the breaking point on that,” King said.

Preserving farms and fish

At Tuesday’s coho recovery plan presentation, county supervisors questioned whether a decade-old pesticide analysis and another one-time water sampling provide enough science to support designating the lower Smith an impaired waterway in a document that could eventually mold state and federal policy.

“Sometimes we take a study and call it the study,” said Supervisor Martha McClure, “If we’re not sure if it’s even been peer-reviewed and we start citing it, it gets us into a little bit of trouble in trying to make a plan.”

“Our plan is based on the best available scientific information, which is not always peer reviewed,” said Weeder.

“I know you did some good work here, but I get very suspicious when something is put forward as a plan ... that cites the problems as ag use and practices, timber harvest, roads, urban, residential and industrial development, mining and gravel extraction,” said Supervisor Finigan, adding wryly, “Sounds to me like we ought to just shut it down.”

“We certainly don’t advocate shutting anything down,” responded NFWS North Coast supervisor Ann Garrett.

The draft recovery plan’s recommendations for the Smith River and the lower Klamath watersheds include a long list of general suggestions, like improving estuarine habitats and tidal exchanges, keeping runoff from getting into the estuary and reducing pollutants.

“We’re interested and concerned about the water quality studies we have seen in the Smith River, but we are very much interested in preserving the lily farmers and the ag interests and working with folks in a cooperative manner to address those issues to make sure there’s a viable commercial entity out there as well as recovery for salmon,” said Garrett.

Said Supervisor Sullivan: “Our big concern is trying to catch the train before it leaves the station, because it will have a bigger impact, just based on the amount of private land that is left in Del Norte and the shape our economy is in. Any impact on any industries that are here is multiplied.”

The plan does not address the saltwater habitat for coho, where they spend the majority of their adult lives.

“Nobody is looking at what’s happening out in the ocean. That’s the big black hole of perhaps where the species is not being allowed to repopulate,” said Finigan.

Weeder addressed ocean concerns during a public meeting on the plan in February.

“We don’t think we can change ocean conditions,” Weeder said then, adding that the plan’s strategy was to work on the coho rearing habitat — rivers and streams.

Electronic copies of the draft plan, which as Weeder put it, “is ripe for your comment” until May 4, are available at www.swr.nmfs.

noaa.gov/recovery. For more information or for a CD-ROM copy of the plan, contact Julie Weeder at 707-825-5168 or This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it  

The Mar. 31 print edition of this story misstated the amount of pesticides applied in Del Norte County in 2010.

Reach Emily Jo Cureton at ecureton@triplicate. com and Adam Spencer at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it