Water testing due in Smith River

By Adam Spencer, The Triplicate June 17, 2013 04:27 pm

Six samplings to be taken in estuary near agriculture

More than $30,000 will be spent on a water testing project planned to begin late this summer in the Smith River floodplain, the “Easter Lily Capital of World” and home to more than 1,100 residents.

The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board will start sampling water from the Smith River estuary in the late summer and will continue the project through next spring, ultimately obtaining 36 samples from six sites downstream of agriculture where contaminants are likely to accumulate.

 The testing is intended to capture the “baseline conditions” of the Smith River estuary in order to measure the effectiveness of an Agriculture Lands Discharge Program that is still being crafted by the Regional Water Board and will be implemented in upcoming years.

“We’re not out there to punish people; we’re out there to test the water quality and see how things are going,” said Rich Fadness,  the Regional Water Board staff scientist who will be conducting the sampling.

The surface water testing was originally planned to start this spring, but water quality staff members are still working with private landowners (almost all of the Smith River floodplain is privately owned) to identify the sampling sites, Fadness said. 

Water testing in the Smith River estuary, which is surrounded by agriculture, has been severely limited, and when testing has been done, the results have been unfavorable.

In 2010, a one-time surface water sampling in a small stream adjacent to lily bulb farms conducted by the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board detected copper, a harmful neurotoxin to juvenile salmonids, at 28 times the legal limit for California Toxins Rule, according to the sampling analysis.

While that one-time sampling was limited to testing for total and dissolved copper, the water testing planned for this summer and next year will test for a wide range of components including pesticides, herbicides, pesticide residues, metals concentrations, PCBs and toxicity.

This round of monitoring will also test for a type of synthetic insecticide that is growing in popularity statewide and recently showed up in the Smith River: pyrethroids.

A study released in March by the Water Board under the Stream Pollution Trendsā€ˆMonitoring Program (SPoT) highlighted the need to test for pyrethroids in the Smith River estuary.

The substance detected in 2010 is called bifenthrin, a pyrethroid that “is highly toxic to fish and aquatic organisms and it should not be applied near water sources,” according to a 1999 paper on the chemical by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation.

“Because of their high toxicity to aquatic organisms, bifenthrin products are registered as “restricted use pesticides,” the CDPR said.

There was no restricted use permit for Bifenthrin filed with the Del Norte County Agricultural Department, but the chemical can be purchased for residential use.

Lily bulb farming in the Smith River estuary currently produces 70 to 90 percent of the lily bulbs for the entire country.

In the 1980s, 80 percent of Smith River wells were found to contain 1,2 dichloropropane (1,2 D) a carcinogenic insecticide the state banned in 1983.

In 2001 and 2002, environmental groups offered free testing for residential wells that showed that 11 wells still had traces of 1, 2 D.

Although there has been recent testing done in the Smith River besides the 2010 copper test and SPoT test, it has been almost exclusively conducted far upstream of agriculture.

The estuary samplings will be done on six occasions: once during the summer dry season; twice during the fall wet season and three times during the spring wet season. All wet season samples will be taken during stormwater runoff events, Fadness said.

Analysis of the data will begin in fall of 2014 and the report should be out by December 2014 or early 2015.

The Agriculture Lands Discharge Program, including the baseline conditions monitoring, is being done under the Surface Water Ambient Monitoring Program (SWAMP), which serves as an umbrella program to test and interpret test results for each body of water in California.

Once the Agriculture Lands Program is implemented, water monitoring should become more regular, perhaps conducted by a local agency, the North Coast Regional Water Board Staff said. 

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