Smith River Estuary: Slow Progress on Water Quality Challenges

Felice Pace, Water Chair

Aerial view of the Smith River Estuary and Smith River Plain showing locations where the NCWQCB has tested surface water quality. Photo submitted by Felice Pace.

At its December 2019 meeting, the North Coast Water Quality Control Board (Water Board) heard an update on the development of a Water Quality Management Plan for the Smith River Plain. Most of the Easter Lily bulbs sold in the USA are produced on Smith River Plain, which also hosts a large dairy, commercial greenhouses and numerous pasture-cattle operations.

Lily bulb grow operations use more pesticides per acre than any other industry in California. Residues of pesticides have been found in surface and groundwater in amounts that are toxic to aquatic life. Furthermore, Reservation Ranch Dairy has polluted the area’s groundwater with nitrates, a risk to pregnant mothers and children. The Dairy’s drinking water well is also contaminated with 1,2,3-TCP, a chemical which was previously used in pesticides, but is now banned state-wide.

The Water Board is developing the Water Quality Management Plan in private meetings with lily bulb growers, the Smith River Alliance and the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation. Under pressure from the North Group and others, the Water Board will use this plan to inform a Clean Water Act discharge permit for lily bulb growers. A permit can be appealed to the State Water Board if it is inadequate, making it possible to enforce provisions that protect water quality.

Though progress has been made, the North Group is concerned that the Water Quality Management Plan has not addressed risks to groundwater quality. We will continue to push for a permit that requires lily bulb growers to monitor and report impacts to surface and groundwater on Smith River Plain.

North Group is also pushing the North Coast Water Board to identify and require monitoring of the water quality in springs which discharge groundwater to Smith River and its sloughs. which provide habitat for two ESA-listed species: Tidewater goby and Coho salmon. The Smith is a candidate for selection as an Outstanding National Resource Water, qualification for which is threatened by polluted surface and groundwater from Smith River Plain.