Cal Fish & Game Schedule Poison
For Portola Town's Drinking Water

by Jan Roberts
copyright 1996, Electric Nevada

PORTOLA, CA -- California fish and game officials, already accused of seriously damaging one Sierra Nevada lake 50 miles northwest of Reno, now plan to introduce poison and potential carcinogens into scenic Lake Davis, which supplies most of this small town's drinking water.  
If the plan goes through, it will be the first time that state officials have applied the poison rotenone to a city's primary water source. Portola city officials are protesting the state's plan and challenging the department's preliminary environmental impact report.
They, along with county officials, also charge that the department plan -- applying poison to the lake to eradicate a recently imported non-native fish -- runs a serious risk of destroying much of the lake's environment. As evidence, they point to another previous local exercise in lake poisoning, by the same state fish and game officials.

The Northern Pike
In the view of the California Department of Fish and Game, on the other hand, the basic problem is simply that someone in the last few years introduced into Lake Davis some northern pike, a fighting game fish highly regarded by many sportsmen, but prohibited by California law.
Native to the Great Lakes area and northeastern states, the pike were introduced into Davis sometime prior to August of 1994, when Fish and Game officials used a gill net to capture a 17-inch specimen. Department officials later documented four more pike -- all averaging 20 inches in length -- caught by fishermen at Lake Davis. Officials have not, however, documented breeding populations of the fish in the lake.
Nevertheless, the official California Department of Fish and Game position is that, if pike establish reproducing populations in areas downstream from Lake Davis, they would prey upon existing fishery resources and seriously affect already depressed stocks of native salmon, steelhead, striped bass and trout.

Not First Choice
"Rotenone is never our first choice," says department spokesman Evan Nossoff, "but... pike being introduced into the Sierras is a major threat to California fisheries. So we had no good choice, in the circumstances." Electric Nevada submitted specific questions to the department early Friday, but no answers were forthcoming during the day.
The department also cites recent listings by the state and Federal governments -- of the winter-run chinook salmon as an endangered species and the delta smelt as a threatened species -- as good reason to act.
Therefore this October, say department officials, they will eradicate the pike by draining much of Lake Davis and inserting the poison rotenone into the remaining waters.
Portola officials and residents, however, are calling the Fish and Game action an outrage. They say the poison treatment is just one of several options available to the department, one that is moving ahead only because Portola is a small town without the political clout of larger area cities like Auburn, Susanville and Sacramento. Official 1990 census figures put Portola's population at about 2100.
Lake Davis, in eastern Plumas County, was constructed in 1967 by the California Department of Water Resources and is fed by three main tributaries: Big Grizzly Creek, Freeman Creek and Cow Creek. Water from the lake flows first to the Middle Fork Feather River and then into Lake Oroville, one of the primary irrigation systems for the entire Sacramento Valley.
In addition to feeding the Feather River, the Oroville dam and, ultimately, Valley agriculture, Lake Davis is the public drinking water supply for the people of Portola and a nearby area known as Crocker Mountain, within the nearby Grizzly Lake Resort Improvement District.

Locale's Major Tourist Spot
Lake Davis is also Plumas County's major tourist and sport fisherman attraction, located amid some of the most scenic National Forest land in northern California. Chamber of Commerce brochures describe the lake as an azure jewel on a field of emerald velvet. The trees bordering the lake -- ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine and fir -- are so dense they create a blue-green haze at twilight. Yet even on the worst days visitors can count on at least a few hours of sunlight. Notwithstanding the presence of some pike, the lake has trophy trout, and the surrounding forest has trophies of another sort: Mountain Ladyslipper, round-leaved sundew, Egg Lake Monkeyflower and adobe lily.
Deer and geese abound, along with a breeding patch of pelicans, and three years ago the Forest Service identified not just a pair of adult eagles but two eaglets as well. Sport fishermen come from as far away as Los Angeles to snag the trophy trout and enjoy the clear air and peaceful surroundings. Lake Davis, locals say, is one of the last few real wilderness lakes in the state.

Yet this all is endangered, they say, charging that Fish and Game's last lake-poisoning exercise in the area -- Frenchman Lake -- produced long-term environmental damage to that locale.

Popular Trout Spot
Some 20 miles east of Lake Davis, and like it a popular trout spot for many Reno area fishermen, Frenchman's was the 1991 site of another application of rotenone poisoning by the state fish and game department. Now, six years later, say department opponents, the aquatic, invertebrate life of Frenchman Lake -- the snails, crawfish, plankton and leeches that feed the fish -- has still not fully recovered, and neither have the fish.
"The rainbow and brown trout," wrote county department of water resources chief Ralph Hinton in 1995, "were completely destroyed in the Frenchman Lake treatment of 1991. These trout populations have not yet been restored as promised." Hinton was addressing Patrick O'Brien, Senior Fishery Biologist with the California Fish and Game Department's regional headquarters in Rancho Cordova, and a chief proponent of the Lake Davis poisoning plan.
Similar complaints came from environmental activists Harry Reeves and Linda Blum who wrote a seven-page protest letter to the department after the preliminary Lake Davis environmental impact report was released. Referring to the department's earlier treatment of Frenchman Lake, they wrote that "The few studies that have been done indicate a general reduction of species diversity and an overall reduction in the numbers of individuals for many species." They also charged the CDFG failed to make appropriate and accurate pre-treatment studies of the lake to determine which rare or endangered species may be killed, or what changes to biodiversity may occur.
It should be remembered, say the department's critics, that the poison rotenone kills not only fish, but most living things in a lake. And its accompanying dispersal agents -- as well as the byproducts of its chemical breakdown, and the detoxifier applied later -- are all known carcinogens, mutagens or teratogens (i.e., cancer-causing, cell mutating, deformity-creating), which have never been adequately evaluated, in terms of their cumulative effects. These chemicals include napthalene, xylene, trichloroethylene, toluene, tetrachloroethane, 2-methylnapthalene and potassium permanganate, all of which the California Water Quality Control Board or otrher agencies have termed "known carcinogens which have toxological effects."
That board recommended to the state department of fish and game that it revise its environmental impact report to "clearly articulate a commitment to pursue the reformulation of rotenone products to remove unnecessary ingredients of concern."

The Poison Rotenone
The rotenone poison, to be used at the end of this year's fishing season, is distributed under the label NUSYN-NOXFISH. Though much used in the eastern United Sates, rotenone has been used in California only twice before. The first instance, in 1987, involved the Bravo Reservoir. Prior to treatment, the reservoir was partially drained and taken offline. Afterward, it was detoxified with potassium permanganate - KmnO4 - a highly volatile chemical generally used as an oxidizer, a disinfectant and an antidote for certain poisons. Post-treatment monitoring, also under the supervision of the California Department of Fish and Game, showed, the department says, no detectable levels of rotenone or other formulation ingredients. Final reports showing these findings were presented not only to the Regional Water Quality Control Board, but the California Department of Health and the Plumas County Health Department -- two agencies not involved in the original monitoring.
The second instance of rotenone usage was at Frenchman Lake.
While California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) officials assure residents of the Portola and Crocker





[Map of Lake Davis, in relation to Reno] Mountain areas that the department will be responsible in its treatment of Lake Davis -- monitoring the water downstream for a sufficient period to prevent contamination of the water supply -- many locals fear department officials have a conflict of interest, and may not report the entire story.
"The larger problem," write Reeves and Blum, "is CDFG's being both the proponent and the monitor of CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) compliance."

Unattended Drip Stations

Locals also say the department's past monitoring performance does not inspire confidence. In the treatment of Frenchman's, for example, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board reported that for extended periods the drip station was unattended by CDFG staff, and the escape downstream of xylene, 2-methylnapthalene, and rotenone exceeded proposed levels. Similarly, at Silver King Creek, where excess levels also entered the stream, no warning signs were posted. The CDFG response is that these two incidents were not "representative of typical impound treatment."
Upon hearing of the proposed treatment of Lake Davis, James Pedri, Assistant Executive Officer of the state Regional Water Quality Control Board, Central Valley Region, wrote Fish and Game biologist O'Brien that, "Sampling during the rotenone treatment of Frenchman's Reservoir in 1991 revealed dichloromethan in our monitoring samples and toluene and tetrachloroethane in samples collected by the CDFG." Pedri further noted that, while the samples did not exceed MCL's (Maximum Contaminated Levels), "any VOC (volatile organic compounds) in drinking water may be a threat, because it is not a naturally occurring substance." Pedri also requested additional information on the breakdown rates and by-products of rotenone, its carrier and the detoxifier.

Previous CDFG Noncompliance
This is a concern of Portola doctor Christopher Stanton, who agrees that the dispersants, the byproducts and the detoxifier are potential carcinogens. He asks, based on previous instances of CDFG and the State of California noncompliance, "where will they be, ten years down the road, when the children start dying of leukemia, [and] the adults of respiratory and nervous system diseases?" He cites a statement of the California Department of Water Quality, in its most recent letter to Boyd Gibbons, chief of the CDFG, that "We believe that sufficient factors remain either unknown or beyond the control of CDFG to warrant site-specific environmental documents..."
When Lake Davis is treated in the fall of 1996, the department's plans call for monitoring to take place at eleven locations: three in the lake itself, at three levels; three at the wells near Lake Davis; three along Grizzly Creek; and two final sites, both at the water treatment plant itself, which provides potable water to the city and Crocker Mountain. Water will be monitored once a day for the first four days, then once a week until the stream is clear. After that, when the treatment plant is brought back online, monitoring will continue until the water is judged safe.
Safe levels of rotenone for humans, according to the California Department of Environmental Health, are five parts per billion. When the Fish and Game Department applies the poison at Lake Davis, it will be a much heavier concentration -- since it is intended to kill living organisms -- two parts per million. Many locals fear that the concentration in the water flowing out of the lake may not be sufficiently diluted soon enough, since water temperature determines the rate at which the chemical break down.

Chemicals in the Water
Authorities on both sides of the controversy agree that the Fall application of the poison increases the likelihood of chemicals remaining in the water far longer than anticipated. While rotenone breaks down swiftly in water temperatures exceeding fifty degrees, its breakdown and dispersal rate in cold mountain streams is much delayed. And the water is bound to be considerably colder in October (the proposed month of treatment) than it is in July or August. Water temperatures of approximately thirty degrees may in fact preserve rotenone well beyond its normal breakdown rate of thirty minutes, or 100 feet downstream. Additionally, the potassium permanganate used to detoxify the rotenone may not operate in the allotted fifteen to thirty minutes in downstream applications, but instead may actually enter the water system. In an internal letter dealing specifically with that chemical, John Turner, Chief of Environmental Services Division of the CDFG, acknowleged that, "Potassium permanganate is a poison in its own right."
To protest the treatment, the Portola city officials recently drafted a letter to the department, challenging its preliminary EIR, which had said "no anticipated loss of wildlife and no significant hazard to humans is expected." The city's reply was succinct: "Significant data and reassurances greater than 'anticipated and expected' will be necessary."
Some local officials question whether the state Fish and Game department can be relied upon to disclose all pertinent facts. When this writer, under the provisions of the state Public Records Act, formally requested release of all monitoring results on the Frenchman Lake episode, the CDFG wrote back that while the department would release documents, " it retains the right to withhold individual documents or portions of said that might subsequently be determined to be exempt from disclosure." The CDFG's Turner did note in his internal memo that, "the requirements of the CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] to deal with long-term, cumulative, impacts necessarily involves full disclosure of past experience."

Other Local Concerns
Plumas County residents have other concerns:
The state does not plan to remove from Lake Davis the post-treatment dead fish, the residue of which would, in the normal course of things, enter the water treatment plant. In conversations around Portola, as well as at public meetings, there is considerable concern that the dead-fish effluvia may produce, in addition to horrible odors, bacteria or viruses which will contaminate the water.
It's also charged that department officials are completely ignoring the likelihood that northern pike enthusiasts will, after the entire project and all of the turmoil, once again introduce fingerling pike into the lake. And sources close to out-of-state sports fishing circles, contacted by this reporter, promise that will indeed be done.
Another question is whether the northern pike do, in fact, significantly threaten other California game fish. In Minnesota and the Great Lakes, residents say the fish co-exist with other species. But CDFG senior biologist O'Brien says that, in Northern California, the fish will behave differently.
In Portola, at the public meetings or in their letters, locals express the feeling that the CDFG doesn't really know what it is talking about, or, if it does, doesn't intend to share the information. And so the residents of Portola and Crocker Mountain wonder if they are facing a potential disaster.
At the public meetings and in letters, they ask questions. Will the eagles eating the dead fish produce viable young? Will the deer and other wild creatures that come down to drink the poisoned water also die, or experience deformed offspring? How bad will the lake smell when all the fish are dead? Will the dead fish create their own, rare diseases -- diseases on the order of Legionnaire's's Disease, or the Hanta virus? Will the medications people take react with the minute amounts of chemicals remaining in the water? Will their children develop leukemia? Will their unborn children have three arms, or one eye?
The Portola area in the past prospered on lumbering and the railroad, but those jobs are gone. With the lake dead and thirty percent of the local tourism income down the toilet, they say, will there be enough money to go around if the children do get sick?


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