OAKLAND, Calif. (KTVU) - Bay Area anglers say they are pleased that the California State Parks is drastically reducing the number of sites that are treated with herbisides on the grass and weed-choked Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
The California State Parks Division of Boating and Waterways (DBW) uses herbicide sprays and pellets containing fluridone to control invasive plants and weeds that displace native plants and form dense mats of vegetation that create safety hazards for boaters while obstructing navigation channels, marinas and irrigation systems.
The move to reduce spraying and pelleting on parts of the Delta this year comes in the wake of last year’s increased use of herbicides that anglers's claim wiped out the weeds, but also killed dozens of beavers, fish, turtles and other wildlife. Over several months last year, anglers discovered and photographed scores of dead fish and wildlife in many parts of the Delta, including Sandmound Slough in Bethel Island, Rock Slough near Knightsen and Horseshoe Bend in Brentwood.
And it wasn't just what they saw, it's what they say they smelled on the Delta too.
"It smells almost like an over-chlorinated swimming pool,’’ said long-time competitive bass fisherman Michael Birch when he spoke to KTVU about the problem last year. Birch said the he smell of chlorine was so strong it made fishermen’s eyes water and their throats burn.
The die-off probelm, anglers say, became so problematic that thousands of people, including fishermen, boaters, swimmers and those who live along the Delta, banded together to form and support the Norcal Delta Angler's Coalition. The group shares information about the die-offs and keeps tabs on the California State Parks Deparment of Boating and Waterways to monitor pesticide use on the Delta.
Andy Doudna, who heads the group, said he is pleased that this year's treatment plan significantly reduces the number of acres that the state is treating with pesticides.
"We're seeing an ecosystem coming back. We're not noticing any dead wildlife. No dead fish. It's a huge change from what we saw a couple of months ago," Doudna said. "The revised plan is awesome. They're more focused on harbors and inlets, very, very few sloughs."
"We 're absolutely elated with that new pellet map,’’ said Birch. who began seeing and photographing dead fish and wildlife last spring in areas where he has fished for two decades. “That’s something we wanted from day one when we started voicing our concerns."
Anglers say they understand the need to control the Delta’s massive swaths of channel-choking vegetation, such as Brazilian waterweed, which can sprout several inches a day, and floating water hyacinth, which can double in size in just two weeks.
But, they were angered and frustrated by, what they said, was an increase in pesticide use in 2018.
“The 2019 treatment plan shows a significant cutback in comparison to last year where they treated every slough, flooded island and marina,’’ said Birch. “This year, they will be focusing just on anchorages,boat ramps and marinas and public notices will be issued prior to treatment.”
State parks says the reduction plan for this year is not tied to anglers’ complaints or the stories 2 Investigates ran on television and featured on the station's website last November.
Eddie Hart with DBW said treatment plans vary from year to year, and factors like weather, hydrological conditions, growth stage of the plants and infestation levels determine how many acres are treated each year.
Last year, DBW treated about 2,200 acres of floating aquatic vegetation and roughly 4,300 acres of submersed aquatic vegetation. This year, DBW says it's been approved for up to 4,500 total acres.
"Our job is not to eradicate, but to control the plants," said Hart. "And at this time, the nine plants that are of concern to us are at a level that aren't needing to have additional control."
Moreover, the divison stands behind its "controlled use" of chemicals on the Delta, underscoring that the products are reviewed and approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
So, while the state maintains that there is no connection between the use of herbicides on the Delta and dead fish and wildlilfe, no one seems to have an answer to what killed off so many fish, beavers and other animals.
Jim Starr, a program manager with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said even wildlife investigators are puzzled by what the death on the Delta.
“They have not found any evidence to suggest that it's been caused by the herbicides,’’ said Starr. “As a matter of fact, it was pretty tough for us to determine any cause of death on the animals that were turned over to us."