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NW Fishletter #373, September 5, 2017

[1] Scientists: Toxics Undermining Columbia Habitat Restoration

Toxic contaminants are undermining habitat restoration efforts, highlighting the need for a more thorough understanding of how toxic substances--alone, cumulatively and synergistically--are affecting fish and wildlife in the Columbia Basin, according to a pair of NOAA scientists who briefed the Northwest Power and Conversation Council on Aug. 15.

Nat Scholz and Jessica Lundin told the Council that the Independent Science Advisory Board, which advises the Council and other fish and wildlife managers, and the Council's 2017 Research Plan identified the pollutants involved as pesticides, including insecticides, herbicides and fungicides; wastewater, including pharmaceuticals and personal care products; and petroleum-derived hydrocarbons from urban runoff, oil spills and industrial discharges.

The Council's research plan also calls for understanding how these pollutants are impacting the Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program's restoration projects.

Citing numerous studies, Scholz said changes and depletions in the food web have affected salmon and steelhead, resulting in disrupted brain functioning, limits to juvenile growth, increased disease susceptibility, reduced migratory survival and, over time, decreased population productivity and abundance.

Most effects on salmon are sub-lethal and delayed in time, said the presentation by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center scientists.

And with a warming climate, higher surface water temperatures will increase the rate of uptake and the metabolic transformation of pollutants to more toxic compounds, Scholz said. To oversimplify, toxicity increases in warmer water.

Research is confirming the role of toxics as a limiting factor in the restoration of Columbia River salmon, he said.

The Council was told that strategies to improve water and sediment quality to reduce fish exposure to pollutants can be very effective. Many solutions to removing toxics are inexpensive and local rather than regulatory, Scholz said. He gave the examples of permeable pavement, rain gardens and soil mesocosms for infiltration.

USGS researches toxics in Columbia estuary food chain. Credit: LCREP.

It's unknown the extent to which these and other efforts to address toxics could better the chances for recovering ESA-listed species.

Scholz said NOAA's goal is to create a framework or life-cycle model in which improvements in water and sediment quality can be evaluated alongside other restoration actions in terms of increasing salmon population growth and abundance.

The day after the report, the Council considered a staff recommendation to use $30,000 of Council funds to develop a pilot toxic contaminants story map using data on one group of toxins, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

Staff chose PAHs for the mapping project because they are ubiquitous in the environment and known to have an impact on salmon. An interagency work group, convened by the Council, has already compiled and standardized all available data on PAHs in the basin.

The main source of the PAH toxins in water come from storm water runoff.

The story map will be good public education and can guide habitat work, Tony Grover, Council fish and wildlife director, told the Council.

While the recommendation was ultimately passed by the four-state Council, its two Idaho members dissented.

Idaho's Bill Booth said the Northwest Power Act "did not envision the ratepayers paying for this in an area where other agencies have responsibility."

Bryan Mercier, BPA's executive manager for fish and wildlife, concurred. "There is not a ratepayer responsibility for this," he said.

Bonneville recognizes the problem and has done assessments of the toxics problem, he said. The agency "has walked away from land acquisitions because of contaminant problems," Mercier said.

Booth and Idaho's other member, Jim Yost, said they were worried that endorsing the mapping plan would be a slippery slope leading to other expenditures to remediate toxic pollution. Other Council members who supported the recommendation also expressed concern about mission creep.

Booth said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should pay for the mapping.

The recently passed Columbia River Restoration Act authorized federal funds for toxics, but no funds have been allocated, Washington Council Member Guy Norman said.

Several Council members noted that while the Columbia River Basin is federally designated as a priority large aquatic ecosystem along with Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico and Puget Sound, the basin is the only one with no funding sources to protect and restore water quality.

Council Chairman Henry Lorenzen said the Council has identified toxics as an important issue. He supported the mapping project "pursuant to our previous decision to form the work group."

One of the 2014 Fish and Wildlife Program's emerging priorities "is to preserve program effectiveness by supporting mapping and determining hotspots for toxic contaminants."

Montana's Jennifer Anders, chair of the Council's Fish and Wildlife Committee, said threats such as predation and contaminants combine to limit our success. "We need to protect our investments," she said.

Preserving program effectiveness appeared to be the argument that carried the day. -Laura Berg

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