Sierra Club: Is Smith River Plain Drinking Water Safe?

April, 2017

Recently, I received a notice  announcing that the State Water Resources Control Board has proposed establishing a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of five parts per trillion (ppt) for the chemical 1,2,3-Trichloropropane (1,2,3-TCP) in drinking water. 1,2,3-TCP is a man-made chemical used as a solvent and degreaser. It is also commonly found in many pesticides, including soil fumigants that are now banned in California. The most common agricultural pesticide containing 1,2,3-TCP is Telon II, which was banned in California in 1990. 

The State’s notice referenced the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), which, in 2009, established a Public Health Goal (PHG)  for 1,2,3-TCP of 0.7 ppt based on the cancer risk posed by this chemical. The chemical is especially dangerous because it remains in groundwater for a long time. There is no evidence that 1.2.3-TCP can naturally decompose and removing it from groundwater is complex, expensive, and not always successful. 

Until it was banned in 1990, Telon II and other chemicals containing 1,2,3-TCP were used as fumigants to control nematodes. The chemical was used on lily bulb fields adjacent to the Smith River Estuary on what is known locally as the Smith River Plain. Other less-studied soil fumigants are now used. The Smith River Plain produces most of the lily bulbs sold in the country. Greg King’s Siskiyou Land Conservancy reports that in some years more pounds of pesticides per acre were used on the Smith River Plain than were used anywhere else in California. 

The State Water Board’s announcement notes that 1,2,3-TCP has been detected in numerous drinking water sources in California. Detections in drinking water by county can be found on California’s State Water Resources Control Board website. According to the site, 1,2,3-TCP has not been found in drinking water in either Humboldt or Del Norte County. However, I’ve discovered that the cancer-causing chemical has, in fact, been detected in community drinking water wells operated by both the Smith River Community Service District (CSD) and the Reservation Ranch dairy and beef cattle operation. Drinking water wells operated by the two entities are located on the Smith River Plain.

I discovered the 1,2,3-TCP detections because two citizens who live on the Smith River Plain came to me with concerns about chemical containments in their drinking water. I agreed to investigate. This  eventually led me to the Safe Drinking Water Information System (SDWIS) website database, which contains test results for all of California’s public drinking water systems. While test results for the Reservation Ranch and the Smith River CSD drinking water wells reveal other problem contaminants, 1,2,3-TCP is the most dangerous chemical detected in groundwater that is pumped and piped into homes. 

I found it curious that these detections were apparently not reported to the State Water Board. I began questioning the Redding-based officials who are responsible for overseeing these drinking water systems and reporting 1,2,3-TCP detections. The officials would not respond when I questioned their failure to report the detections. I’ve now filed a complaint with the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of which the State Water Board is an agency.

I’ll report the EPA’s response when I receive it and will keep advocating for the clean up of groundwater north of the Smith River Estuary. Groundwater pollution there puts residents, workers, fish, and other wildlife at risk. 

Entities like Reservation Ranch and the Smith River CSD have a responsibility to inform the public when the drinking water systems they operate are dangerously contaminated. State Water Board officials are responsible for making sure that happens. When it comes to the Smith River Plain, however, systems that are supposed to protect the public are not operating properly. That must change.

One need not be a Sierra Club member to participate in these outings. Please join us!

Saturday, April 8—South Fork Trinity River (off Highway 299) Hike. National Forest trail with views of the river gorge and wildflowers from the 2008 Hell’s Half mosaic burn and recent rains. No dogs. Dress for the day’s weather. Must have water, lunch, good footwear, and agility to cross tributary streams and possible deadfall trees. Medium difficulty, 7.5 miles, less than 1,000 feet elevation change. Carpools at 8:30 a.m. at Rays Food Place in Valley West. Leader Ned,, or 707-825-3652. Heavy rain cancels.

Thursday, April 13—Former Coastal Drive Redwood National Park Hike. Walk roadway closed to vehicles since 2011 on coastal bluffs. Maintained road resumes in three miles near High Bluffs Overlook. Optional side trip north to disguised WWII radar station. Dress for coastal exposure, bring lunch and water. No dogs. Class M-6-A. Carpools at 9 a.m. at Rays Food Place in Valley West. 10:30 a.m at trailhead at Coastal Drive south closure gate. Leader Melinda,, 707-668-4275.

Wednesday, May 17—Coyote Creek Basin in Redwood National Park Hike. A loop overlooking Bald Hills’ springtime meadows and woodlands, passing a sheep shed, barn, and cabin on slopes opposite the Lyons Home Place. Bring lunch and water; prepare for wind, chill, and sun. No dogs. Class M-7-B. Carpools at 9 a.m. at Rays Food Place in Valley West or 10 a.m. at Lady Bird Johnson parking lot. Lyons Ranch Trailhead at 10:45 a.m. Leader Melinda,, 707-668-4275.

Sunday, May 21—Horse Mountain Botanical Area Hike. Two dirt road loop trails, each just over two miles. One to the west of parking area, past the Ski Chalet site with views of the King Range, Siskiyous, and the coast. Another loop to the north and east passes Jeffrey pines, red rocks, and a stretch of single track viewing the Trinity Alps, Yolla Bolly Range, and possibly Mt. Lassen. Bring lunch, water and good boots. No dogs. Medium difficulty, five miles, less than 1,000 feet elevation change. Carpools at 9 a.m. at Rays Food Place in Valley West, 10 a.m. at Horse Mountain parking area. Leader Ned,, 707-825-3652. Heavy rain cancels.

Please Join Us!

The North Group’s Executive Committee meets the second Tuesday of each month in the first floor conference room at the Adorni Center on the waterfront in Eureka.  The meeting, which covers regular business and conservation issues, begins at 6:45 p.m. Members and non-members with environmental concerns are encouraged to attend. When a new person comes to us with an environmental issue or concern, we often place them first or early on the agenda.

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