May 19, 2024

Advanced Ailment Care

Elevating Health Solutions

Water quality board says metals in Klamath River not a health concern

6 min read
The Klamath River flows through the former Copco Lake Reservoir in February 2024 near Copco, Calif. Siskiyou County residents raised concerns about elevated levels of metals like arsenic and lead in the Klamath River following the drawdown of Copco Lake and other reservoirs.

The Klamath River flows through the former Copco Lake Reservoir in February 2024 near Copco, Calif. Siskiyou County residents raised concerns about elevated levels of metals like arsenic and lead in the Klamath River following the drawdown of Copco Lake and other reservoirs.

Juliet Grable / JPR

In late March the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors proclaimed a local emergency related to concerns about heavy metals like arsenic and lead being present in the Klamath River. It was prompted by the ongoing removal of four hydroelectric dams on the river.

JPR’s Erik Neumann spoke with Matt St. John, an environmental program manager with the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board about how worried people should be about heavy metals in the river.

Erik Neumann: Earlier in the year Siskiyou County had a water quality report commissioned by a private lab that showed these increased levels in number of heavy metals in the Klamath River after the dams were breached. There’s been concern about those numbers. Can you describe the findings of that report and how concerned people in the area should be about them?

Matt St. John: Siskiyou County, as you stated, did some monitoring in late January for metals concentrations. They reported those metals concentrations and compare them to drinking water standards. And based on that, the county determined that there was risk to public health. The regional and state boards are not concerned with the elevated metals concentrations. It was known based on the environmental analysis that there are naturally occurring metals — it’s part of the geology of the Klamath River Basin. Arsenic levels are particularly high in sediments, as are aluminum and lead in the sediments, and those metals accumulated in sediments behind the dams. And so, it was expected that as the as the dams were drawn down, and you had a big flush of sediments, and unquestionably, it was alarming to have such highly turbid waters coming down the Klamath River. But it was expected that you’d also have high metals concentrations. Those metals concentrations are not a threat to public health. It’s OK to touch the water with those type of concentrations. And no water in the state of California should be drunk without any without treatment. And so, the Klamath River isn’t a source of drinking water without treatment of that water.

Neumann: In late March, the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors issued an emergency proclamation that mentioned environmental health concerns with the water in the Klamath River. You alluded to this, but is there any public health basis for the county declaring an emergency?

St. John: Well, from the water board’s standpoint, the water quality conditions in the Klamath River based on that one sample event in late January does not present risks to public health. It was expected, again, that there will be elevated concentrations of levels of metals. But it was also expected that those are closely correlated with increased turbidity. And that as the sediment is, as the reservoirs are drawn down, and those sediments are flushed out of the system, that there will be a decrease in turbidity levels, as well as a decrease in metals concentrations. And as of this morning, we’re seeing a continued decreasing trend of suspended sediment and turbidity. And so, it’s very safe to assume that metals concentrations are also decreasing as the sediment concentrations decrease.

Neumann: These chemical levels were recorded shortly after the dams were breached in January. How have these numbers changed since then?

St. John: Well, there has not yet been additional monitoring, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, has agreed to do another round of, an additional round of monitoring to match the monitoring that was done by Siskiyou County. Those monitoring results have not yet been reported. But again, based on monitoring of suspended sediment and turbidity concentrations, it is very safe to believe that those metals concentrations are decreasing just as the sediment concentrations are decreasing. But the additional monitoring that the Klamath River Renewal Corporation will be doing will inform whether or not, indeed, the metal concentrations are decreasing as we expect they are and will inform whether additional monitoring is needed. And if that’s the case, the regional water board and the state water board may be requiring the Klamath River Renewal Corporation to do that additional monitoring.

Neumann: You mentioned that these are naturally occurring metals. Where do they come from?

St. John: Well, again, they’re part of the geology. So, they’re part of the makeup of the of the soil chemistry. So, they really are naturally occurring as part of the rock and soil that’s in the Klamath Basin. It’s not known whether there were any types of additional activities that would have increased the concentrations of metals in the sediments. But there’s no reason to believe that that would be the case.

Neumann: Is there any reason that people should be worried about recreation like boating or fishing on the Klamath River?

St. John: There isn’t. Again, based on the monitoring that was done in late January, those concentrations of metals don’t have any impact if you touch the water, there’s no risk from dermal skin exposure. And as far as incidental ingestion from swimming, in collaboration with our colleagues at the Cal EPA, we did some analysis and determined that the concentrations of metals in late January were — if a child ages 7 to 10, were to swim for an hour and a half in the river, which they wouldn’t likely be doing in the this time of the year, that those concentrations would not exceed any action level of concern.

Neumann: How does this level of water quality health risk compare with the regular summer closures that occurred in Copco Reservoir or Iron Gate Reservoir because of toxic algae?

St. John: Well, it’s really apples to oranges, it’s a very different situation. It’s well established that the types of cyanobacteria that were commonly persistent in the reservoirs and would then make their way down below Iron Gate Dam are at levels that would exceed public health thresholds, and did regularly lead to signage that restricted access to those waters. So there really is no comparison between these very much expected temporary elevated metals concentrations to that persistent levels of harmful algal blooms that have been occurring with the presence of the Klamath River dams.

Neumann: I guess my question was, which is more dangerous to people, the toxic algae or the heavy metals? And it sounds like it’s the toxic algae.

St. John: The toxic algae based on lots of study has known health risks, can cause death to dogs, and can make people nauseous or [can] even [be] lethal under very high dosages.

Neumann: Were the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors misinterpreting the results in this report? Or was it taken out of context? What’s your sense of why this emergency proclamation was created, given what you’re saying where there’s not a major health concern?

St. John: I really can’t speak to the reasons for the Board of Supervisors taking the action that they did. But what I can say is that from the water board standpoint, there wasn’t an emergency situation associated with the quality of Klamath River water following dam decommissioning activities.

Neumann: How do people find out when these newer sampling results are taken? You know, what has changed?

St. John: The Klamath River Renewal Corporation is required to report their samples to the state water board, and the state water board will be posting those results on our website. We have a frequently asked questions document that’s speaking to Klamath River water quality issues, and any information, new information that warrants a change to those frequently asked questions, we will go ahead and make those changes. But the sample results will be posted to our website as soon as we receive them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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