Words Of Warning - by Lisa Owens Viani

Printed in Terrain Magazine Fall/Winter 2007

Steelhead and salmon use their highly developed sense of smell to know when to mate, pick up on signals from other fish that help them avoid predators, and find the streams in which they return to spawn. But runoff from pesticides such as carbaryl, diazinon, and malathion, to name just a few, even in low doses, can impair their olfactory nerves; higher doses can cause death.

In 2004, to try to stop runoff and death in salmonid-bearing streams, the Washington Toxics Coalition and Earthjustice filed suit—twice—against the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The result was a court ruling that prohibits agricultural users from aerial spraying of thirtysome pesticides within a hundred yards of salmonid-bearing streams and on-the-ground use within twenty yards. It also requires retail stores in urban areas—with populations of over 50,000 in Washington, Oregon, and California—to post warnings that seven pesticides are a "salmon hazard." The seven bad boys are 2,4-D, carbaryl (in Sevin dust and granules), diazinon (Knox Out, Gardentox, Spectracide, and others), diuron, malathion (Celthion and Maltox), triclopyr BEE, and trifluralin.

Have you seen warning signs in your local big box or hardware store? As so often happens, regulation doesn't always lead to implementation, and the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center's (OAEC) Brock Dolman wants to step up the signage. OAEC's Water Institute has developed a campaign in Sonoma County to educate storeowners about the effects of pesticides on salmon and to ask them to advertise in-store alternatives. Says Dolman, "After that second court ruling we started looking around here; there were no signs. We figured OK, the EPA has been slapped twice, now how else can we help at a local level to implement this program? Let's do our own follow-up."

OAEC has developed an information packet that it sent out to vendors in Sonoma County and has hired a multilingual, part-time coordinator, Viviana Coloma, who will visit the stores in person. If the signs are up, she will thank the manager; if not, she will request a formal meeting to encourage them to comply with the law, says Dolman. OAEC has also launched an email effort, contacting other watershed groups around the state, to advise them of the ruling and ask them to do similar store visits in their own areas. A quick look at some East Bay hardware stores turned up no salmon signs, despite the fact that Codornices, Wildcat, and San Pablo creeks are home to steelhead.

Dolman and Coloma say a few stores in Sonoma County have put up the signs. OAEC has also created "Salmon Safe" signs that retailers can use to advertise alternatives to the hazardous pesticides. "We try to both let them know that they are legally required to put up the warning signs and that there are alternatives," says Brock. "We tell them that there is this huge growth of green products out there on the market and that people want alternatives, that we're not just going to cut into their market. It's a good way to go when dealing with business owners."