Siskiyou Land Conservancy
Protecting California’s Wild North Coast and Rivers Since 2004

California Pesticide Agency’s Phony Award to Easter Lily Farmers

In March 2015, in one of the most Orwellian displays of deference to industry ever shown by a California state agency, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) gave Easter lily farmers an “Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Innovator Award” for allegedly reducing pesticide use “by about 50 percent over the last 20 years.”

Statistics provided on DPR’s own web site not only show no decrease in pesticide use on lily fields in Del Norte County, California, during that time period, but demonstrate that in those years lily farmers actually increased pesticide use by 65 percent. The award also flew in the face of previous revelations by another state agency, the California North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, that pesticides are causing severe toxicity in streams that feed the estuary of the Smith River.

A sign in Smith River warns against entering an Easter lily field recently sprayed with the toxic fumigant 1,3-dichloropropene.

A sign in Smith River warns against entering an Easter lily field recently sprayed with the toxic fumigant 1,3-dichloropropene.

DPR claimed that the Easter Lily Research Foundation “has adopted a number of practices to reduce their pesticide use by about 50 percent over the last 20 years.” Actually, Easter lily pesticide use increased from about 180,000 pounds in 1992 to 297,000 pounds in 2012 (the latest year that numbers are available), an increase of 65 percent in the exact 20-year period cited by DPR. Moreover, these numbers come from DPR’s own web site.

The phony award remains relevant because it illustrates the uphill battle we face in trying to ramp back pesticide use on the Smith River Plain. The state Department of Pesticide Regulation is supposed to ensure that pesticides are not harming humans or the environment. This is clearly not the case in the lower Smith River watershed.

The Smith is California’s wildest and cleanest river, and is considered to be one of the most important streams on the West Coast for protecting endangered salmon and steelhead. This is especially true for coho salmon, which are disappearing throughout the state. Coho can spend a year longer than other salmonids in fresh water, often in estuaries.

Smith River farmers claim that they grow 100 percent of all Easter lily bulbs used in North America. Most of this farming occurs on fragile bottomlands of the Smith River Plain, which surrounds the Smith River estuary.

Easter lily growers use approximately 300,000 pounds of pesticides annually, including California’s highest per-acre applications of the fumigants 1,3-dichloropropene and metam sodium. Other highly toxic pesticides used adjacent to the Smith River estuary include chlorothalonil, diuron, disulfoton, phorate, ethoprop, and maneb.

DPR also contended that Easter lily growers were “developing a strategy … to control nematodes while reducing the use of fumigants.” Yet the dramatic increase of pesticides from 1992 to 2012 came almost entirely in the form of toxic fumigants.

In 2013 lily growers applied 122,499 pounds of 1,3-dichloropropene and 100,122 pounds of metam sodium (the chemical that, in 1991, spilled into the Sacramento River, killing everything for 40 stream miles before diluting in Lake Shasta). These are both highly toxic, carcinogenic fumigants that disrupt reproduction in many species, including salmon but also humans. Both pesticides have seen dramatic increases on Easter lily fields over the past 20 years, and especially during the past 10 years.

DPR also claimed that lily growers’ “approaches often involve huge commitments of time, research and a determination to effectively control pests without harming the environment.” But, as noted above, the harm is now well documented. Last year the state Water Board revealed that its testing of surface waters feeding the Smith River estuary, and which run through lily fields, show “acute (and) chronic reproductive toxicity,” meaning that invertebrates that make up the basis of the salmonid food chain cannot survive or reproduce in that water. The Water Board also found 10 different pesticides in the water. It was the fourth time since the mid-1980s that the Water Board had discovered significant pesticide contamination in the ground- and surface waters of the Smith River estuary.

The Smith River contains the most viable coho salmon population in the California. It is considered a “core watershed” for coho and other species, meaning that recovery of the species in other California streams may hinge on making sure that the Smith River remains healthy.

Pesticides are also known to affect human health. For many years residents of the town of Smith River, which is surrounded by Easter lily fields, have complained of birth defects, miscarriages, skin diseases, respiratory and vision problems, and cancer that they attribute to the massive pesticide use virtually in their back yards.

Siskiyou Land Conservancy called the Department of Pesticide Regulation to complain about these glaring errors and the bogus award. We spoke with DPR Senior Environmental Scientist Mark Robertson, who said he would check it out. Two hours later Robertson phoned and emailed to say that DPR had made an “error” in writing the press release. Nonetheless, the lily growers still got their award.

Here’s Robertson’s email:

Thank you for your inquiry this morning about the 2014 Innovator Award press release. You are correct that there has not been a 50% reduction in pesticides use in Easter lily production over the past 20 years. The error in the press release has been corrected. The error was caused by the inadvertent condensation of two unrelated sentences from the organization description that was used as the basis for the press release. Unfortunately, though I and several other people reviewed the press release, no one here caught the error. Thank you for contacting me so that we could correct the press release in a timely manner.