Toward an Effective Water Quality Plan for the Smith River Plain


By Felice Pace, Water Chair for North Group Redwood Chapter Sierra Club


The North Coast Water Quality Control Board (Water Board) recently released its Draft Water Quality Plan for the Smith River Estuary Lands known as Smith River Plain for public comment. The Draft Plan discloses the extent to which some lily bulb growers have failed to implement even the most basic best practices while continuing to use large amounts of pesticides multiple times each year, and at times nearly constantly for weeks on end. Basic best practices, like the size of required no-spray stream buffers, are on pesticide labels, yet many lily bulb fields don’t have adequate buffers. 

This aerial photo from the North Coast Water Board indicates that few lily bulb growers are providing required no-spray buffers. It appears that Del Norte County’s Agricultural Commission is ignoring the violations.

For those among us who have been working for decades to get water quality degradation in lands adjacent to the Smith River Estuary controlled, the Draft Plan is a big disappointment. The North Coast Water Board’s Draft Plan for rectifying growers’ failure to implement best practice is disappointingly vague and general. For that reason, it can not serve as a blueprint for keeping the pesticide and nutrient pollution that plague the area out of our streams, groundwater and the estuary itself. Furthermore, the Plan not only fails to monitor and protect groundwater quality, it actually recommends using groundwater as a place to divert polluted stormwater. Further polluting the groundwater that residents and workers use for drinking and bathing is a major reason the Water Board’s plan is disappointing and unacceptable.  

Stormwater and irrigation water collect in lily field ditches where they carry pesticides and nutrients into groundwater. Photo source: Felice Page

What would an adequate Water Quality Plan for the unceded Tolowa Dee-ni’ lands adjacent to the Smith River Estuary look like? I believe such a plan would have the following attributes: 

  • First, the plan would not just apply to lily bulb growing but would look at all activities which pollute surface water and groundwater on both banks of Smith River Estuary. Best practices for the other major agriculture activities adjacent to the Estuary, including floral greenhouses, dairies and non-dairy animal agriculture would be included. 
  • Second, an adequate water quality plan would be spatially explicit. It would show on map figures within it where watercourse no-spray buffers are adequate, as well as where they are lacking. A spatially explicit, map-based plan will show clearly what is expected of growers and operators on each acre and for each field, pasture and confined animal operation.  An explicit map-based water quality plan would provide a blueprint for the future and a concrete basis for evaluating progress going forward. 
  • Third, a good water quality plan for unceded Smith River Estuary Lands will treat groundwater and surface water as the single, interconnected resource that they are. The North Coast Water Board is responsible for protecting both ground and surface water as Public Trust Resources subject to federal and state clean water law and policy. Only an integrated surface and groundwater plan can restore water quality to standard and protect human and ecosystem health.
  • Fourth, an adequate water quality plan for the Estuary Lands will deal with the large amounts of stormwater that come off fields and other agricultural production areas, including confined animal operations, when torrential storms sweep in from the Pacific. It is impossible to keep all pollution out of so much stormwater. Therefore, an adequate plan will likely require restoration or expansion of wetlands on both the north and south banks to collect and naturally clean stormwater before it flows or seeps to the Smith River.  
  • Finally, an adequate water quality plan for Estuary Lands will be a community plan that is worked out in public meetings with all stakeholders, including workers, involved. The current practice of controlled access to planning groups and meetings out of the public eye is unnecessary and undemocratic. Like the water in Smith River, surface and groundwater on Estuary Lands are Public Trust Resources. Planning and decisions about Public Trust Resources should be made in public. There are good models for community-centered all-party planning. 

A sizable chunk of Estuary Lands are the dairy, lily bulb and other operations known as Reservation Ranch. Present ownership has a long history of citations for bad environmental practices and violations. The Tolowa Dee-ni’ Tribe would like to reclaim control of those unceded ancestral lands. Because these lands were never legally ceded by the Tolowa Dee-ni People to the US they should never have been claimed by white settlers. 

Reservation Ranch dairy cows graze around the Estuary’s Tilas Slough. The Smith River Estuary, Tolowa Dunes and the Pacific Ocean are beyond. Photo source: Felice Pace

The settler take-over of Smith River Estuary Lands included brutal massacres of Tolowa Dee-ni’ people, the ancestors of current tribal members. The Tribe should get control of the Reservation Ranch property as a small modicum of the reparations descendants deserve. If the modern Tolowa Dee-ni’ regain control, I hope they will honor their ancestors and the land by making restoring water quality and the health of Estuary Lands a priority.  


The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the North Group on this topic.