Monday, April 25, 2011

Sending pollution to another country - a trip down the Sumas River

Everybody loves pictures, right? Well, here's seven pictures and a story about a trip I took down the Sumas River earlier this month. The Sumas River originates just west of Sumas mountain, and north of the Nooksack River, in Whatcom County, Washington. It meanders roughly 15 miles towards the Canadian border, and ultimately flows into the Frasier River, in British Columbia, Canada. In the past, the Sumas River flowed into Sumas Lake, a large lake within the Frasier River floodplain. It was drained for agriculture in the 1920s.

In the 1930s, a landslide on the slope of Sumas mountain began to contribute an annual load of sediment to Swift Creek, a tributary of the Sumas River. Along with the sediment are high levels of metals, including naturally occurring asbestos, magnesium, and nickel. Winter flooding cycles regularly deposit sediments containing these metals along the river banks and into adjacent low-lying fields. Many studies have been done on the health effects of this situation, and the results of these are complicated, and beyond the scope of this story.

The Sumas watershed is an agricultural area, home to approximately 50 dairy farms. As you can see from the photo above, agricultural fields extend all the way to the edge of the river. Riverside vegetation management and riparian buffer establishment are complicated in these areas. Regular flooding deposits metal rich sediments, which stunt the growth of plants, including native vegetation. I don't know if the high levels of magnesium and other metals have stunted the streamside vegetation, or if it was removed for agricultural reasons...so the mystery unfolds.

There was a swift spring current the day we paddled down this river. When we wanted to stop, we tried to grab fistfuls of the stunted vegetation so we could take a look at sites like the erosion gully, above. This looks like a big erosion blowout along a raspberry field. My theory is water drained out of this field so quickly that it carried the pile of mulch (or manure) along with it. All I know is, in some of the areas around here, the smell of manure was so strong that my eyes burned. We also noticed it was impossible to get out of the canoes, because the river banks were really, really, slippery, and tended to slough off. When one of the two teenagers we had along tried to get out of the canoe, he slipped into the water, and had a hard time pulling himself onto the banks. The rest of us laughed harder than we had in recent memory watching this, but after watching him, we were afraid to get out.

Wow...look at this - party time! Is this an unpermitted fishing or party shack? I bet nobody ever checks for stuff like this out in the boonies along this river. I couldn't find any plants to grab onto to help me slow down here, but another person in our group noticed a row of booze bottles along an inside shelf in this brand new little shack. If you don't care about the annual asbestos deposits, this would be a great vacation spot. After all, this river supports several species of salmon, as well as steelhead and cutthroat trout. I hope the folks using this place don't start dancing with wild abandon during the summer dry spell, because they'll kick up lots of that asbestos dust, which wouldn't be too good for their health.

Here's a spot where we grabbed some vegetation and took a rest stop, wondering what runs off these fields. With 50 dairies in this watershed, a lot of manure is generated. And what's not absorbed by plants has to go somewhere. Most of the native trees along the river appeared to be dead. In the summer months, this water must get pretty warm, as there were very few areas that would offer shade over the water.

This river meanders so many times that we lost track of the bridge crossings and road names. Our main concern was crossing the border by accident and getting into trouble. But the above scene was memorable - a cattle operation that allows cattle direct access to the water for drinking and swimming. When we first rounded the bend, there were a dozen cattle wallowing here. I don't think these cattle see many people in canoes, so they ran off once we came into view.

You can't blame farmers for wanting their cattle to be able to drink this nice, mineral-enriched water. Allowing free access to water used to be common, but now it's discouraged. Why? When cattle wander down to the water, their hooves trample the banks, releasing even more sediment into the water. Sediment is bad for fish - it smothers fish eggs, and clogs fish gills. And cattle poop, causing even more water quality problems. Excess nutrients from manure can cause fecal coliform pollution, and problems from excess nitrogen and phosphorus levels. This explains why the Sumas River has been included on the state's list of most polluted waters for about a decade.

Just before we reached the Canadian border, the river widened a little, and for the first time all day, there was an area with a natural looking riparian buffer. There was a nice variety of ducks along this stretch.

Sometime soon I'm planning to continue exploring the Canadian portion of this river, to it's confluence with the Frasier River. On the Canadian side of this river, it flows though some of the best agricultural lands in Canada, with the longest growing season. On the Canadian side of the border, the Sumas watershed is home to the most intensive livestock concentration in Canada. It will be an interesting trip...check later for an update, and thanks for reading.

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