Lily Pesticides Contaminate Smith River

April, 2015

**CORRECTION. The print version of this article was errantly attributed to the Smith River Alliance. Greg King is the Executive Director of the Siskiyou Land Conservancy.

Ninety-five percent of all Easter lily bulbs (Lilium longiflorum) produced in North America are grown along a tiny sliver of coastline in northwestern California and southwestern Oregon. The bulk of these bulbs come from the rich bottomlands of the Smith River Plain, in Del Norte County, which surrounds the estuary of the biologically critical Smith River. In order to sustain this sprawling monoculture, lily farmers have resorted to applying large amounts of pesticides. These pesticides, as we now know from four significant discoveries, since the 1980s, of toxic waters in and around the estuary, could prove to be the greatest challenge to the Smith River’s aquatic species, particularly its iconic salmon and steelhead populations.

It turns out that finding pesticide contamination at the estuary of one of the cleanest, wildest rivers in North America is not a difficult task. The first discovery occurred during the 1980s, when the California North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board found, at minimum, forty-seven wells contaminated with the pesticides 1,2-dichloropropane and aldicarb, both carcinogens and both deadly to aquatic organisms. One of the wells contained 160 parts per billion of 1,2-D, one of the highest readings in the nation. After finding the contamination and issuing a report, the Water Board took no action and simply left residents of the town of Smith River, and the fragile aquatic species of the estuary, without a state advocate for clean-up and enforcement.

The second finding of contamination occurred in 2002, when the Smith River Project (which has since merged with Siskiyou Land Conservancy) found that at least another dozen wells remained contaminated with 1,2-D. But the most significant findings occurred within the last five years. In 2010 the state Water Board took just four surface water samples from streams that run through lily fields before feeding the Smith River estuary—two samples from above the lilies, two from below — and in one of the lower samples found copper levels that were twenty-eight times higher than allowed by state law. More compelling was that the water demonstrated “chronic reproductive toxicity,” meaning that aquatic invertebrates that make up the basis of the salmonid food chain could not reproduce in that water.

Finally, in 2013, the Water Board took six more samples of estuary surface waters. Three of them demonstrated chronic reproductive toxicity, and a fourth—at the mouth of Rowdy Creek, one of the Smith’s two most important coho salmon streams—showed “acute” reproductive toxicity, meaning that if you dropped a baby invertebrate into this water it would die. Since finding the toxicity the Water Board has refused to make the results public, so Siskiyou Land Conservancy did so last year.

Such toxicity at the estuary of one of the most biologically intact—and therefore one of the most important watersheds on the West Coast—is unfathomable in an age when the threat of pesticides to aquatic species is well demonstrated. Yet every year Easter lily growers apply 300,000 pounds of highly toxic pesticides to their crops. Two of these pesticides—1,3-dichloropropene (which replaced 1,2-D) and metam sodium (which in 1991, after a train derailment and spill, killed all aquatic life on a 40-mile stretch of the Sacramento River)—are applied in pounds-per-acre amounts that are higher than anywhere else in California, which is really saying something. 

That said, superlatives about the Smith River are almost inexhaustible. The Smith contains more miles designated “Wild and Scenic” than any other U.S. stream, and it is California’s only major undammed river. More than 80 percent of the Smith River is protected in state and federal reserves, and the Smith holds the highest percentage of original old-growth forest of any California watershed.