Smith River Neighborhood Watch coordinator Joni Forsht began by telling local Easter lily bulb growers that though the goal wasn't to put them out of business, she wanted them to change their methods "as far as what you're putting on the lily bulbs and where it's going."
But before Wednesday's meeting was over, the growers said they felt attacked.
They took issue with Forsht's claim they were using glyphosate on their fields as well as independent fisheries biologist Carl Page's statement that he had seen cattle physically walking into the Smith River estuary and its tributary, Tillas Slough.
Page has lived in the Smith River area for about 20 years and has conducted fisheries studies in the area as well as in Southern California. He spoke of "cumulative impacts" to the Smith River estuary from the Easter lily bulb industry's use of herbicides and pesticides to cattle entering the Smith River estuary to a proposed Green Diamond Resource Company timber harvest plan along Lopez and Rittmer creeks.
He called for fencing off the Smith River estuary and Tillas Slough as a first step in improving water quality for the federally endangered northern tidewater goby, coho salmon and other species.
Grant money is available through multiple agencies to pay for fencing off the estuary and other restoration efforts, he said. Page said he had been working with a Humboldt State University graduate student, who is conducting a study of aquatic insects on the Smith River flood plain and its tributaries that will be able to give an indication of the watershed's health.
The return of vegetation along the riverbanks could also be used to filter nitrates, phosphates and other contaminants out of the water, he said.
Page noted the Smith River flood plain and its tributaries are important for coho salmon, which was once abundant in the Smith River and are now rare. He cited another HSU study, a 2002 water quality study of Tillas Slough, which showed that the dissolved oxygen was under 1 milligram per liter throughout the entire summer.
"One milligram per liter is 10 percent saturation," Page said of the oxygen content. "That is really, for native fish, intolerable, and one of the reasons why the dissolved oxygen are so low (is) a lot of the algae use up the oxygen and the reason they do that is because of the ample supply of phosphates and nitrates in the water. These can quite commonly come from manure, from cows."
Low water quality also threatens the tidewater goby, Page said. He noted because the goby is federally endangered, Endangered Species Act laws come into play and by allowing cattle to walk into Tillas Slough and the estuary, farmers could be impairing its recovery.
Page said he had photos of evidence that cattle had entered the slough. He also circulated a map from Humboldt State University showing the effects of sea level rise in the Smith River Estuary.
When asked for more details about the 2002 HSU study, Page couldn't provide the name of the author except to say she was a master's student in the university's fisheries program.
Page's proposal to fence off the Smith River estuary and Tillas Slough drew push back from local farmers and one resident, Ernie Silva. Silva said he had never seen cows in the estuary.
"First of all they can't walk out there, it's too soggy, it's too deep," he said.
Rob Miller, owner of Dahlstrom and Watt, said he doesn't own any cattle and noted the area around Tillas Slough is owned by Reservation Ranch, which is owned by Steven Westbrook.
Meanwhile, Matt Westbrook, of Palmer Westbrook, asked Page for any data he may have, saying he didn't have any information to decide whether he would support fencing off the estuary or not.
"I'm interested in doing anything I can to benefit stream restoration," Westbrook said. "But I'm going to need more — where's the meat? It sounds great, but where's the meat? Where's the data?"
Miller said agencies like the State Water Quality Control Board have brought issues about water quality to growers' attention before and they have made a "huge amount of changes." But, he said, "until you know what the problem is you don't have the ability to fix it."
Richard Brooks, a member of the Tolowa Dee-ni' Nation, said Alexandre Dairy had allowed their cattle to enter Yontocket Slough, which is near the state-managed Tolowa Dunes State Park. When the tribe opposed their actions, he said, it took about two years for state officials to tell the dairy to remove their cattle.
Forsht said the Easter lily industry's effects on water quality has been discussed at three previous Neighborhood Watch meetings over roughly three to five years and "nothing ever comes of it."
"I am at that point right now where I think something should happen," Forsht said. "We need to move forward. We need to move forward and do something about what is going on with the Smith River and with the land. It's all affecting all of us."
Forsht indicated that she'd like to hold future meetings to discuss water quality issues in the Smith River area.
Reach Jessica Cejnar at email@example.com .