River Conservation

You would think that a group that belonged to the Sierra Club would be concerned about the fate of our rivers AND WE ARE.

We have always had a strong conservation program with many active members ready to write a letter or attend a meeting to support the rivers that we boat. Some times we are the lead group on an issue and some times we join efforts with groups to help their efforts. The important thing is to make sure that there are rivers for us to boat, for our children to enjoy, and for all life that lives along its banks.

The Paddlers’ News Bulletin includes updates on river conservation issues. We will also post articles and news bulletins on this page.

HOW CLEAN ARE CALIFORNIA RIVERS?

Nancy Dagle
The one thing that the North Fork of the American, the New River, and the North Fork of the Stanislaus all have in common is the clarity of water. If you look down as you drift in a pool, it seems as though you are flying in the air. You can see the stones, rocks, and fish as if you were looking through a pane of glass. This does not mean that these rivers are completely free of pollutants, but the clarity is an indication of their health.

This is not the case in many of the rivers that we boat. Have you ever seen billowing piles of scum and foam in the eddies on certain rivers? Sometimes the water is filled with silt and heaven knows what else. It appears murky, and sometimes it smells bad.

In this article we will examine some of the types of pollutants that might be in the water of our rivers, and the effects they have on our health. It will not be a complete, all-encompassing list , but rather a series of water pollution hazards that I have encountered throughout the years.

Point and Nonpoint Sources of Pollution

When pollutants come from a discrete source such as a pipe or culvert, it is called a point source of pollution. When rain washes over a field or a parking lot and enters a stream over a wide area, it is called a nonpoint source of pollution. As you can imagine, point sources might be easier to identify, but are no less harmful to water quality.

Types of Water Pollution

Natural sedimentation and pollution can come from various sources. I will term natural sedimentation the soil that enters a river channel from undisturbed watersheds. A watershed is the area that drains to a river or stream. Natural pollution can come from mineral seeps such as the hot springs you find on the Carson, Kern, and Eel Rivers. Rocks that contain a high level of phosphates or iron can be broken down and wash into rivers. The phosphates can form a foam that can be found in eddies, and the iron can stain the water a rusty color.

Bacteria and the micro-organisms giardia and cryptosporidium can be found even in the clearest of mountain water. These nasties can greatly upset your intestines and generate a trip to the doctor for prescription medicine.

Unnatural sedimentation and pollution can come from disturbed watersheds. Activities that disturb this area are often human caused such as mining, clearing land for development, and logging. As the land is disturbed, the vegetation that has held the soil in place is removed, and the soil, therefore, is free to be transported in large amounts into stream channels. The water in the stream is no longer clear, and runs a muddy brown.

Under unnatural sedimentation I will also classify natural disasters such as landslides and floods.

Certainly a stream isn't as pretty to us muddy rather than clear, but is it harmful to humans? The answer to that question is it depends on whether or not the sedimentation carries with it any harmful pollutants.

As to fish, the answer is yes. Fish eggs can be covered by the increased sedimentation and smothered, and fish have greater difficulty finding food sources in murky water. Sedimentation turns the waters a darker color which allows it to absorb more heat by radiation. This affects certain species such as trout which like cool water.

Sediment can be churned up by in-river gold mining. Suction dredging is a gold-mining method that uses a gasoline-powered vacuum to sift through the gravel of river and streams.

Often the sedimentation that is caused by humans carries with it unwanted pollution into our rivers. The runoff from farms can transport pesticides and herbicides. Such pollutants can kill off aquatic life. As there are less organisms due to pollution, fish stocks decline as their food source is eliminated.

If homes along the river use septic systems, a poorly designed septic can add human waste to a stream. As river front home owners spray chemicals on their lawn and gardens, they too can enter the river (the chemicals not the people!).

From farms, animal wastes can wash into streams. The animal wastes can carry a toxic microbe as well as nutrients that spur the growth of algae and other organisms. As these organisms and algae multiply, they consume more oxygen in the water. Less oxygen means that other aquatic life die out.

Gold, silver, cooper, pyrite, and sulfur are just some of the minerals that have been mined in California. Some mining operations use toxic chemicals to separate the minerals from the surrounding rock and these chemicals continue to wash into our rivers.

Large mineral mining operations can contribute acid mine drainage to a water body. As rain water floods old mine shafts, mine tailing ponds, and catch basins, a toxic soup of chemicals from these mines wash into our rivers. Not only does the color and smell of the contaminated river change, but the PH can change due to the acid nature of the chemicals. Fish, organisms, and people do not respond well to this hazardous situation.

You probably haven't heard of this problem as yet. It is called "pharm" runoff. Humans have been taking billions of doses of increasingly complex bio-chemical compounds over the past several decades. Approximately 50 to 90 percent of every pill, capsule and capful a person takes passes on through the body. Now scientists are starting to find these leftover pharmaceuticals in rivers and lakes in Europe Environmental regulators in the U.S. have not begun to address this problem as yet.

So Is It Safe To Go Boating?

Canoeing on the Klamath RiverOnly you can make that decision, but below I have listed specific examples of some of the types of problems we have with water pollution in California.

MINING

Iron Mountain Mine
Iron Mountain Mine is located in Shasta County in the south-eastern foothills of the Klamath Mountains. In the 1860s a land surveyor discovered an enormous mass of copper rich ore. Production of copper ore began by 1896. Pyrite was also mined to produce sulfuric acid for use in the oil industry. By 1939 fish kills were documented in local streams due to the receipt of huge amounts of copper. These local streams (Slickrock Creek, Boulder Creek and Spring Creek) eventually enter the Sacramento River. The California State Division of Fish and Game told the mine operators to reduce metals and acid drainage.

By the 1940s more than a third of the salmon run has been killed before they could spawn. Local fishing groups asked the federal government to step in and release water from Shasta Lake to dilute the toxic brew.

Over the years there were many discharges of acid mine drainage that produced massive fish kills. In 1957, the mine owner blamed the federal government for the fish kills. "Prior to construction of the dam and its subsequent regulation of flow in the Sacramento River, any pollutants entering from Spring Creek were rendered harmless by dilution" writes Mountain Copper's Vice President C.W. McClung. The entire young salmon population in the river from Keswick to several miles below Redding was eliminated in 1958.

The federal government became involved in 1959 and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that Iron Mountain owners seal mine tunnels or collect mine drainage in a reservoir.

In 1962 Stauffer Chemical Co. began buying Mountain Copper, and in 1964 the Bureau of Reclamation built a $3.2 million debris dam to catch and hold toxics until sufficient rain water flowed into Keswick Lake and the Sacramento River for dilution. The heavy rains of 1964 over topped the dam and a large salmon kill occurred below Keswick Dam.

At the end of the 1960's and the dawn of the 1970s, the people of this nation became aware of damage caused to the environment by uncontrolled industry. In the birth of the environmental movement, citizens requested, lobbied for, and demanded federal laws to protect our air and water. The federal Clean Water Act was passed. By 1983 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put the Iron Mountain Mine on the federal Superfund List.

Today the mine dumps an average of 180 pounds of copper daily to the Sacramento River near Lake Shasta. Since copper is so toxic to plants and animals, it destroys the base of the food chain. The drainage from the mine into the river is very acidic and has a PH of 2. By comparison vinegar has a PH of 3.

Currently the cleanup of Iron Mountain Mine is tied by in the courts. The mine is now owned by Rhone Poulenc, and its lawyers have stalled the cleanup by fighting the Superfund cleanup orders in court. One of its arguments their lawyers use is that the government bought metals from the mine during World War II and were on the site, and thus had a role in the pollution. Pollutants continue towash from Iron Mountain Mine into the Sacramento River.

(Much of the information for this story came from a November 2, 1997 San Francisco Examiner article )

INSECTICIDES

Such rivers as the San Joaquin and Sacramento run through farm land and can pick up a wide variety of insecticides that have been used on crops. As water from rain or irrigation washes into creeks and rivers, it carries a payload of poison.

Organophosphate pesticides such as diazinon and chlorpyrifos are related to World War II nerve gases developed in the 1950s to kill flies, cockroaches, spiders, fleas and aphids. Residents and growers also use these chemicals to kill fire ants. Orchards and fields sometimes use the maximum amount of insecticide allowed by law as more resistant strains of insects become more prevalent.

As these chemicals enter the waterways, they kill off aquatic life and upset the food cycle. Baby salmon, stripers and sturgeon now have less to feed on, said Chris Foe, a biologist with the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. The chemicals, once thought to dissolve quickly, are now known to linger in the water for weeks. Many rivers that have an accumulation of these insecticides empty into the Delta and then into San Francisco Bay.

Integrated pest management is now being used by some growers. Integrated pest management allows the grower to use a lesser amount of insecticides since they also incorporate such practices as pheromone lures, increased sanitation, and the release of beneficial insects to reduce insect populations that are harmful to the crops.

MANURE

In California, the large corporate dairy farms and the cattle feedlots produce abundant manure runoff into our waterways. Small dairy and cattle operations also contribute to increased microbial loads. Containment ponds are suppose to be built to handle the waste, but I have seen such ponds fail. The manure overloads waterways with nutrients that spur the growth of algae and other organisms. The problem has worsened as animals are increasingly concentrated in larger and larger operations.

Along such rivers as the Mokelumne and the Stanislaus you can occasionally see grazing livestock. As well as adding manure to our streams, the sediment load has increased due to the livestock eroding the river banks.

California is not the only state that has such problems. In 1995, there were six animal waste spills from large confined swine operations in North Carolina. The largest of these spills dumped 21 million gallons of effluent into the New River. In Maryland, a toxic microbe outbreak last summer in Chesapeake Bay tributaries was attributed to runoff from livestock operations and farming activities.

LEGISLATIVE ACTION

When this country was governed under the Articles of Confederation, the states were powerful and the federal government was weak. The result was havoc. This situation resulted in a group of men gathering to write the Constitution which created a strong central government.

If we were still governed by the Articles of Confederation, industries that wished to pollute our waterways to save themselves the money it would require them to clean up their act would seek to do business in the states that had the weakest environmental laws. As states vied to attract businesses, they would weaken their environmental laws. We all would suffer.

Our current federal Clean Water Act evens the playing field. Strict environmental laws from a strong federal government prevent industry from playing this state hopping game. The reality is that lobbyists from industries pound the halls of Congress attempting to convince our representatives to weaken the Clean Water Act. Corporate money flows into the campaigns of legislators.

What can you do to protect the rivers you boat from becoming sewers?

Sierra Club