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Estuary Report: Columbia River Salmon Show High
Levels of Toxic Contaminants, Monitoring Inadequate

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin, June 11, 2010

The Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership has released its "2010 Report on the Estuary" which focuses on toxic contaminants in the estuary and calls for establishing an extensive monitoring program that measures pollutants in the estuary, identifies contaminants' sources and tracks impacts on fish, wildlife and human health.

Included in the report are results from a four-year salmon sampling project that shows high levels of toxic contaminants in juvenile Columbia River Basin salmon.

An ongoing, comprehensive monitoring program, says the report, should direct actions to reduce such contamination.

The report is a five-year assessment of the region's progress towards a "healthy ecosystem in the lower Columbia and estuary" in five key areas; water quality, land use, habitat, stewardship and endangered species.

The report says toxic contaminants, both old and new, are in the river and fish. There is not adequate monitoring of contaminants to determine all the sources or how they move through the river ecosystem, the report says. Water quality continues to be compromised from pollutants flowing from roadways and rooftops.

Pharmaceuticals are degrading water quality, the report says, and causing severe challenges to wildlife. The progress to restore habitat for fish and wildlife replaces less than half of what has been lost since settlement. The number of plants, fish, and wildlife listed as threatened or endangered species has grown in the lower river from 24 to 32 since 2004.

"Investment in the Columbia lags far behind other major water bodies and the river remains degraded. The 16,000 acres of restored habitat returns less than half the acres lost since 1880 and on-going habitat loss is not being measured. Only one site along the lower 146 miles is monitored regularly for contaminants," says the estuary report.

"Land use changes and their impact are not tracked. As existing problems are addressed, we aren't sure what new ones we may be creating."

"We must institute and sustain a monitoring program that measures what is in the system, contaminant sources, and impacts on wildlife and human health to direct actions to reduce contamination. Investment in habitat restoration needs to include all aspects of projects and link to toxics reduction."

The report includes results from the Estuary Partnership's "Water Quality Monitoring and Salmon Sampling 2004--2007."

The project investigated the presence, distribution and concentrations of contaminants in water, sediment, and juvenile salmon at six sites. Fish were analyzed for lipid (fat) content and contaminant concentrations, genetic origin, otoliths (ear bones) for age and growth rate, length and weight.

The level of vitellogenin, a protein associated with egg production in reproductive female fish, was measured to test for the effect of hormone-mimicking compounds on juvenile fish. Stomach contents of fish were analyzed to determine the type of prey being eaten and the associated contaminant levels.

The project was funded by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and Bonneville Power Administration; principal partners were U.S. Geological Survey and NOAA Fisheries. Ending in 2007, no such sampling and monitoring is now being done.

Polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and flame retardants (PBDEs) were found throughout the lower Columbia River in water, sediment, and juvenile Chinook salmon. These contaminants move from river water and sediment into salmon prey and are absorbed into salmon tissue.

PCBs in salmon tissue and PAHs in salmon prey exceeded estimated thresholds for delayed mortality, increased disease susceptibility, and reduced growth.

Exposure to flame retardants is on the rise in the Pacific Northwest. Chinook salmon near Portland have PBDE levels in the top 10 percent of reported values for fish in the region. The two most commercially used PBDE congeners were found in the water column, sediment, and salmon and are frequently detected in people, fish and other organisms.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified PBDEs as potentially carcinogenic and children are most at risk since the primary exposure is through dust. PBDEs levels in humans are dramatically rising in North America, EPA says, with body burdens exceeding Europeans by 10 times or more.

Juvenile salmon from upriver stocks (such as Snake River and upper Columbia stocks) are absorbing toxic contaminants during their time rearing and migrating in the lower Columbia River, says the estuary report. PBDEs are doubling in fish every 1.6 years.

DDT and PCBs are still detected in juvenile chinook salmon.

"These banned contaminants continue to accumulate through the food chain. Their detection today demonstrates that they breakdown slowly and remain in the environment a very long time," says the report.

The report does say some positive changes are happening in the lower Columbia River.

"The Estuary Partnership and over one hundred restoration partners have restored 16,235 acres of habitat since 1999. Local communities are using more innovative stormwater management techniques to improve water quality. The bald eagle is no longer listed as endangered and the Columbian White-tailed deer populations are showing improvements. The Estuary Partnership has reached 84,500 youth and adults since 2005 to provide science learning experiences about the lower Columbia River."

In addition, earlier this year the "2010 Columbia River Restoration Act" was introduced into Congress by Oregon's U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley and U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer. The bill would give Congress the ability to appropriate up to $40 million annually to reduce toxics and restore habitat in the Columbia River Basin.

Both Debrah Marriot, executive director of the Estuary Partnership, and Marylou Soscia, Columbia River coordinator for EPA, say that if the legislation can reach President Obama's desk for signature, it would potentially provide funding for the monitoring of toxic contaminants' impacts to salmon, steelhead, and other wildlife that is called for in the 2010 estuary report.

Such ongoing monitoring could guide decision-makers (and funding decisions) in taking effective steps in reducing the level of toxic contaminants in the estuary and entire Columbia River Basin, Marriot said.

The 2010 Columbia River Restoration Act has been the subject of two hearings in Congress and House and Senate staffers are now engaged in the bill's "markup," said Marriot. Further hearings are possible, she said.

Soscia said the estuary report's emphasis on toxic contaminants is "on the same track" as EPA's effort in the Columbia Basin. "Our emphasis is on toxics," she said. "EPA has said that the level of toxic contamination is what we are most concerned about."

What about health issues related to Columbia River salmon being consumed by humans today?

The estuary report, under the section "Fish Consumption Rate," says The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, and EPA are developing a fish consumption standard more protective of human health.

"Native Americans consume 9 to 12 times more fish than other populations. Based on studies of fish consuming populations in Oregon and Washington, EPA, DEQ, and the tribes are proposing a consumption rate of 175 grams per day, equivalent to approximately twenty-three eight-ounce fish meals per month. The standard, up from the current 17.5 grams per day, will be the highest in the nation. The new standard may help limit the amount of contaminants that can enter Oregon's waters and the levels of toxics accumulating in the aquatic organisms."

(For background on "Fish Consumption Rate" issues see the CBB stories "EPA Disapproves Oregon Water Quality Standards; Clears Way For Higher Fish Consumption Rate" and "EPA Faces June Deadline In Approving Oregon's Water Quality Criteria For Pollutants")

The Estuary Partnership was established in 1995 by the governors of Washington and Oregon and EPA to provide a "coordinated, regional voice to improve ecological conditions of the lower river." The lower Columbia River is an "Estuary of National Significance," one of only 28 in the nation.

Using a watershed ecosystem based approach, the Estuary Partnership works across political boundaries with 28 cities, nine counties, 38 school districts and the states of Oregon and Washington over an area that stretches 146 miles from Bonneville Dam to the Pacific Ocean. It is the lead two-state entity working in partnership with the private sector and government agencies focused on the ecosystem. The Estuary Partnership is a National Estuary Program, authorized by Congress in the 1987 amendments to the Clean Water Act.

The 2010 report says "investments in toxics monitoring have decreased even while we have learned more about the impacts of toxics on salmon survival and human health. It's time to change."

The report recommends:

For more on the Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership

Related Pages:
Estuary Improving - But Worries Still Linger About Toxics by Cassandra Profita, The Daily Astorian, 6/7/10
Toxic Contaminants and Their Effects on Salmonids by Morace, Johnson & Nilsen, Science Policy Exchange, 9/11/9

Estuary Report: Columbia River Salmon Show High Levels of Toxic Contaminants, Monitoring Inadequate
Columbia Basin Bulletin, June 11, 2010

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