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

What’s going on? Toxic pesticides found in the estuary of California’s most pristine river

The four circles represent where the state Water Board found toxicity in streams feeding the Smith River estuary. The glowing circle is at the mouth of Rowdy Creek, where state scientists discovered “acute reproductive toxicity.”

The four circles represent where the state Water Board found toxicity in streams feeding the Smith River estuary. The glowing circle is at the mouth of Rowdy Creek — one of the Smith’s two most important salmon streams — where state scientists discovered “acute reproductive toxicity.”

Since 2001, Siskiyou Land Conservancy and our predecessor, the Smith River Project, have led efforts to reduce and eliminate the annual application of 300,000 pounds of highly toxic fumigants, herbicides and fungicides on 1,000 acres of bottom land that surrounds the Smith River estuary, in Del Norte County. These pesticides are used to grow 100 percent of North America’s production of Easter lily bulbs. Two of these pesticides — the carcinogenic and fish-killing fumigants metam sodium and 1,3-Dichlropropene — are used on lily fields in pounds-per-acre amounts that are higher than anywhere else in California, which is really saying something.

What’s perhaps most dumbfounding about such a high level of toxic pesticide use is exactly where they are applied: At the richest and most vulnerable reach of one of the world’s cleanest rivers.  Superlatives describing the Smith River watershed, which is located in the far northwestern corner of California, are inexhaustible and in no way overstated. The Smith is unique among coastal rivers in the United States, and there are few watersheds like it remaining in the world’s temperate zones.  The Smith River anchors the Klamath-Siskiyou Bioregion, one of the most biologically intact, and important, large and untrammeled ecosystems left in the world. The Klamath-Siskiyou provides high quality habitat for endangered species even while ecosystems up and down the West Coast of the United States continue to be degraded by human activity. And it’s stunningly beautiful.


Mouth of the Smith River.

  • The Smith River is the wildest and cleanest river in the country outside of Alaska — indeed, it is one of the cleanest rivers in the world.
  • The Smith is the only major undammed river in California, and it anchors the coastal heart of the Klamath-Siskiyou Bioregion, one of the oldest, largest and wildest temperate ecosystems in North America.
  • The Smith River watershed contains a higher percentage of unlogged, original ancient forest ecosystem than any other river in California.
  • The Smith River contains more stream miles federally designated “Wild and Scenic” than any other river in the United States.
  • Smith River salmon and steelhead runs are legendary. Some of the largest Chinook salmon (greater than eighty pounds) have been found on the Smith, and the Smith holds the state record for the largest steelhead ever caught (27 pounds).

In 2010 and 2013, the California North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, acting on demands by Siskiyou Land Conservancy, tested surface waters that run through Easter lily fields and feed the Smith River estuary. Water Board scientists found “acute (and) chronic reproductive toxicity,” meaning that invertebrates that make up the basis of the salmonid food chain cannot reproduce in (“chronic”), nor even survive in (“acute”), these waters. State scientists also found ten pesticides in surface waters, and copper levels that were twenty-eight times higher than allowed by state law. (Smith River lily farmers apply 40,000 pounds of Class I copper products each year.) This is an almost unprecedented abuse of a critically important ecological refuge in the United States.

Given that the Smith River is among the healthiest salmon and steelhead rivers on the West Coast of the United States, the toxicity finding is shocking. Still, no state or federal agency has taken action to stop the pesticide loading, despite near constant admonishments from the offices of Siskiyou Land Conservancy. Residents of the small town of Smith River (pop. 2,000), which is surrounded by Easter lily fields, are also at risk from pesticides, as a recent health survey distributed by Siskiyou Land Conservancy made clear.

In  2014 the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) released its long awaited draft Southern Oregon/Northern California Coast (SONCC) Coho Recovery Plan. What the Smith River chapter of the Coho Recovery Plan makes clear is that Coho numbers are plummeting not just in the region’s mostly beleaguered watersheds, but on the pristine Smith as well. The Recovery Plan lists the Smith River’s Coho salmon population as a “high extinction risk.” This despite the fact that the majority of the 719-square-mile watershed is in excellent condition, relative to other streams in Southern Oregon and Northern California. Where the Smith’s salmonid habitat is not excellent, according to the Recovery Plan, is at the estuary. And it’s the estuary that might best serve Coho salmon, especially juveniles as they flush from their native tributaries often to spend an entire year in fresh water before migrating to sea.

Coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch)

The Recovery Plan notes that “restoration of the Smith River estuary … is imperative. … Agricultural run-off needs to be addressed to reduce the concentration levels of pesticides reaching the Smith River and its tributaries. … Of particular concern is the lily farming that occurs on the floodplain. One study showed that intense use of pesticides between 1996 and 2000 by lily farmers led to high levels of chemicals including carbofuran, chlorothalonil, diurin, disulfoton, and pentachloronitrobenzene. [The authors should also have listed metam sodium and 1,3-Dichloropropene. Also, pentachloronitrobenzene is no longer used on the Smith River.] Recent testing in the lower Smith River has revealed copper concentrations that may have acute toxic effects and impair olfaction and reproduction of coho salmon (North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (NCRWQCB) 2011). The current level of chemical contamination is a high risk for juvenile salmonids (Bailey and Lappe 2002).”

It was Siskiyou Land Conservancy’s Bailey-Lappe (CETOS) study that initiated scrutiny of pesticides at the estuary, and the “recent testing” noted above came only after several years of continual pressure by SLC on the State Water Board to conduct the tests.

Siskiyou Land Conservancy supports farmers, lily growers included. If analyses of pesticide use and their effects on the Smith River estuary show a need to transition toward less chemically-intensive agricultural practices, then we are committed to assisting lily growers do so without impacting their livelihoods. Already Siskiyou Land Conservancy has inquired with Congressman Jared Huffman’s office about securing Farm Bill funding to assist with any such transition. Like the lily growers, many of whom can be found on their days off fishing the Smith, we are in this for the long haul. Together we can protect the Smith River’s vital salmonid habitat.