“Acute (and) Chronic Reproductive Toxicity” Discovered at Smith River Estuary

State and federal regulators charged with protecting public trust values — such as clean air and water, healthy wildlife, and human health — are apparently uninterested in enforcing laws that should protect the estuary.


It appears that pesticides are poisoning one of the most biologically important estuaries on the West Coast of the United States. In Del Norte County, in the far northwestern reach of California, farmers who grow ninety percent of the U.S. production of Easter lily bulbs apply an annual average of 300,000 pounds of highly toxic pesticides on some 1,000 acres of lily fields that drain directly to the Smith River estuary. The apparent damage of such chemical use is now evident:

  • In 2014 the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board released a devastating report revealing that its scientists had uncovered “acute (and) chronic reproductive toxicity” in three of the four streams that feed the Smith River estuary. This means that invertebrates that make up the basis of the salmonid food chain cannot reproduce in these waters, and that the entire food chain is threatened. Several pesticides used on Easter lily fields can cause reproductive toxicity (see pesticide list below).
  • This testing occurred three years after the Water Board found that a stream feeding the Smith River estuary’s only remaining large slough was contaminated with pesticide residues, namely copper at levels that were 28 times higher than that allowed by state law. Lily growers apply more than 30,000 pounds of copper products annually.
  • Christopher Pincetich, Ph.D., an expert on the effects of pesticides on aquatic organisms, said of the state’s Smith River testing, “The chronic toxicity result is very significant; I saw almost zero reproduction. That test uses Ceriodaphnia dubia, a freshwater invertebrate, the ‘water flea.’ It is very relevant to use as it is the base of the food-web. If Cerio can not reproduce in your watershed, you can technically extrapolate this to say that salmon habitat is likely impaired as their food source (small aquatic invertebrates) is impacted.”
2013 toxicity locations
The four circles represent where the state Water Board found toxicity in streams feeding the Smith River estuary. The glowing circle is at the mouth of Rowdy Creek, where state scientists discovered “acute reproductive toxicity.”

“Impaired” is a technical term under the federal Clean Water Act, meaning that some aspect of the stream is significantly unhealthy. For the Smith River to possibly quality for such a listing is unheard of.

These tiny testing events, with their huge results, have forced public trust agencies, lily growers, and NGOs to address the issue of pesticide contamination at the estuary of California’s wildest river. The Smith River is considered a “seed bank” of wild salmonid stocks that, in terms of species recovery, can recolonize salmon and steelhead streams up and down the California-Oregon coast. The Smith is a last holdout in a state riddled with damaged watersheds. But will pesticides prove to be the Smith’s undoing?

Estuaries provide critical habitat for salmonids — particularly, in California, endangered Coho salmon — and other species. Protecting the Smith River, in the northwestern corner of California, serves all Californians, and Americans. Superlatives describing the Smith River are inexhaustible and in no way overstated. The watershed is unique among coastal rivers in the United States.

  • The Smith River is the wildest and cleanest river in the country outside of Alaska — indeed, it is one of the cleanest rivers in the world.
  • The Smith is the only major undammed river in California, and it anchors the coastal heart of the Klamath-Siskiyou Bioregion, one of the oldest, largest and wildest temperate ecosystems in North America.
  • The Smith River contains more stream miles federally designated “Wild and Scenic” than any other river in the United States.
  • Smith River salmon and steelhead runs are legendary. Some of the largest Chinook salmon (greater than eighty pounds) have been found on the Smith, and the Smith holds the state record for the largest steelhead ever caught (27 pounds).

Nonetheless, a 2002 study commissioned by the Smith River Project revealed that in 2000 lily growers applied more pounds per acre of metam sodium and 1,3-Dichloropropene (highly toxic and carcinogenic nematicides, both of them deadly to fish) than occurred in any other county in California. In 2010 Siskiyou Land Conservancy discovered that use of both of these chemicals in Smith River had more than doubled. In addition, use of at least four pesticides along the Smith River estuary exceed the federal government’s established level of concern for endangered aquatic organisms. Seven of the most toxic pesticides are known carcinogens, and many are harmful or fatal to aquatic life. This is an extreme application of chemicals well known to be dangerous to wildlife — particularly fish — alongside what is arguably one of the most biologically critical estuarine habitats on the West Coast of the United States.

In 2012 the National Marine Fisheries Service released its long awaited Southern Oregon/Northern California Coast Coho Salmon Recovery Plan, which lists pesticide use on lily bulb farms alongside the Smith River estuary as one of the greatest threats to salmon in the watershed. The Recovery Plan cites the work of Siskiyou Land Conservancy and its predecessor, the Smith River Project, owing to our original research on pesticide use along the Smith River and its potential impacts on salmonids. Coho salmon are at risk of extinction in California, and the Smith River is considered one of the few streams in the state that sustains viable Coho populations. Nonetheless, the Coho Recovery Plan notes that the Smith River Coho population is at a “high extinction risk.”[1] (The northernmost population of tidewater goby, listed as “Endangered” under the federal Endangered Species Act, is also found in the Smith River estuary.)

Siskiyou Land Conservancy exists in part to protect farmers and farmlands. Yet we cannot abide by the poisoning of one of the most important estuarine habitats on the West Coast of the United States simply to produce an ornamental crop — a commodity that earns Del Norte County far less revenue than do the commercial and sport fishing industries. Yet even these industries are potentially threatened by pesticides. State and federal regulators have shown little interest in protecting the Smith River estuary from pesticides, despite the now obvious cause-and-effect correlation between massive chemical applications surrounding the estuary and the inability of estuary waters to sustain life. Siskiyou Land Conservancy will continue to pressure regulators to enforce the law, and we will encourage consumers to purchase only “salmon safe,” organically grown Easter lily bulbs.

If you would like to support our grassroots work to protect the Smith River estuary, please send a tax deductible donation to: Siskiyou Land Conservancy, POB 4209 Arcata CA 95518. Thank you.

[1] http://swr.nmfs.noaa.gov/recovery/soncc_draft/Chapter_15_Smith_River_Population.pdf.

Bad Actor Pesticides_Smith River_2012