Saving Salmon, Saving Ourselves by Pollyanna Lind
I first learned to appreciate the connection between land and water quality as a child raised in the rural reaches of Oregon, in the watershed of the Umpqua River. As a child, I remember being fascinated by how the natural systems of the land caught and carried the high quantity of rain, guiding the water from the giant treetops to the forest floor, to small upland streams, to rivers, and then finally back to the ocean. It is a cycle as perpetual, natural, necessary, and intertwined as the wild native salmon that depend upon these same streams.
This childhood fascination eventually carried me through college and into a career of working to protect the natural environment. My current position is as the Clean Water Campaign Coordinator for the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP). In my job I see that each one of us makes choices every day that impact the waters that we, and heritage species like the salmon, depend upon. It is the quality of these choices, and their outcomes, that now has my attention.
The Risks of Pesticides Today many streams, lakes and rivers in the Northwest are contaminated with pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc). The best information about how pesticides are contaminating our water comes from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). In the six major watersheds USGS studied in the Northwest, sixteen pesticides were found in waterways at or above recognized standards set for the protection of fish or fish habitat. Fifty different pesticides have been detected in Oregon’s magnificent Willamette River basin and eleven of them have been detected above an aquatic standard.
For threatened or endangered species like the salmon, the impacts of pesticide contaminated water may be a serious factor in their survival. Beyond the direct acute toxicity that pesticides pose, sublethal and indirect effects of pesticides are a serious factor in salmon decline. Devastating effects on salmon’s behavior, immune systems, hormonal systems, food supply, and aquatic habitat alterations may be less visible than an immediate fish kill but are likely to ultimately reduce survival considerably.
Risks to humans are equally associated with many of these pesticides. Children are especially vulnerable to pesticide exposure because of greater cell division rates and their early stage of organ, nervous, reproductive, and immune system development. Their exposure to pesticides is also increased due to their characteristic contact with lawns and playgrounds.
The pesticides found in our waterways are a result of run-off or drift from pesticide use in schools, parks, homes and gardens, farms and forests, in lakes and irrigation canals, along roads and railways, and other settings. In urban environments, the hydrologic system is greatly altered from its natural state. Impermeable surfaces like sidewalks, parking lots, compacted lawns, and rooftops result in a high quantity of run-off with each major rain event. The storm drain systems developed for cities to efficiently transport water for flood control have become direct routes of urban run-off and its contaminants into our water systems.
Solutions in the Making The National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS), the federal agency that has the responsibility of restoring the twenty-six Pacific salmon species listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, recognizes the impact that current pesticide use has on salmon survival. NMFS states that current EPA label requirements were “developed without information about some of the subtle but real impacts on aquatic species such as salmon” and that they were “not developed with the intent of protection or recovering threatened salmon.” NMFS emphasizes on-the-ground change at the local and state level as a key part of salmon recovery efforts.
Most cities and counties in the Northwest use pesticides in their parks, roadside vegetation management, municipal building and grounds, and other properties. Today, these same cities and counties are in a unique position to not only reduce their own use of harmful pesticides, but also serve as a model for their citizens and other municipalities. A few Northwest municipalities have implemented salmon-friendly pest control methods. For instance, both Seattle and San Francisco have eliminated the use of many toxic herbicides and insecticides on their properties. Oregon’s Jefferson County hasn’t used herbicides in their roadside maintenance program for over 20 years, nor has San Juan County, Washington.
Oregon’s capitol, Salem, is currently considering the development and adoption of a city-wide pest management policy. Salem has the potential of being a model city for communities across the region. The Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP) and several concerned citizens in Salem came together to instigate and support these efforts resulting in formation of the Salem Pesticide Committee. The Salem Pesticide Committee is working for a city-wide integrated pest management policy that reduces the use of harmful pesticides for the safety of the community and its water quality.
There are challenges but, finding the balance between land use, water quality, human health, and wildlife is something we must strive for. Cleaning up our waterways will take sustained efforts by government agencies, cities and counties, and individuals. It’s up to each one of us to become aware of our actions and their cumulative effects on our water systems.
You can make a difference in your community. For our quality of life we must take the following actions:
- Phase out the use of harmful pesticides.
- Adopt measures to keep pesticides out of water.
- Establish pesticide use tracking systems.
- Promote and adopt practices that reduce reliance on pesticides.
Pollyanna Lind coordinates NCAP&Mac226;s regional Clean Water for Salmon Campaign and is the author of Poisoned Waters; Pesticide Contamination of Waters and Solutions to Protect Pacific Salmon. She has been on NCAP’s staff since 1995. She received her B.S, in general science from the University of Oregon in 1993 with minors in geology and physical geography.
The Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP) is a regional grassroots non-profit organization that has been working to protect people and the environment by advancing healthy solutions to pest problems for the past twenty-five years.