For years, state boats have sprayed thousands of pounds of herbicides into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to kill invasive aquatic weeds. And, for years, California officials have insisted they closely monitor their chemical use to protect the ecologically fragile estuary and the drinking and irrigation water the Delta supplies to millions of Californians.
A pending court case casts fresh doubt on those claims.
For two consecutive summers, Joe Aiello’s bell pepper crops near Brentwood in Contra Costa County wasted away and died.
His farm company eventually sent soil, water and plant samples to labs for testing.
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The results showed high levels of fluridone, the active ingredient in weed-killing herbicide pellets that state officials routinely spray from boats in the Delta to kill aquatic plants.
Last year alone, the Department of Boating and Waterways applied 198,100 pounds of fluridone pellets as part of a concerted effort to kill the huge infestations of invasive aquatic weeds that biologists say are damaging native fish habitats.
Fluridone is just one chemical the state uses to kill weeds across the Delta’s 60,000-acre spider web of sloughs and river channels that stretch from south of Sacramento and west of Stockton to the San Francisco Bay.
Not only do the weeds snarl boat propellers, state officials say it’s critical to knock them back to keep water flowing to millions of acres of California farmland and 25 million urban Californians.
Aiello says the water used to irrigate his Brentwood peppers was pumped directly out of the Delta. He alleges the state sprayed fluridone pellets into the channels that supply his irrigation water in 2015 and 2016, and his peppers died soon after.
He says the state was obligated to check if peppers were growing nearby because the manufacturer’s warning label for Sonar PR, the brand name of the fluridone pellets, says in bold-faced type to avoid spraying in waters used to irrigate peppers as the herbicide can kill the plants.
Feeling it was obvious the state was to blame, Aiello filed a claim for damages with the state. The state rejected the claim, forcing Aiello’s company, Uesugi Farms, to sue the Department of Boating and Waterways last summer. The suit in Contra Costa Superior Court seeks $10 million in damages to compensate him for more than 466 acres of dead peppers.
Gloria Sandoval, a spokeswoman for the Department of Boating and Waterways, declined to comment on the pending litigation. But speaking generally, she said in a statement the agency follows “best practices” and “approved product labels of usage” for the herbicides it applies in the Delta.
“Our applications are tightly focused on aquatic invasive species, not land, and they are done in strict adherence with state and federal guidelines to ensure that the Delta is protected from our use of herbicides,” she said. “Treated areas are monitored to ensure herbicide levels do not exceed allowable limits.”
Though the lawsuit was under way, Aiello didn’t want any more of his plants to die, so he moved his pepper operation to a farm in San Joaquin County.
In July, once again, some of his peppers started to die. Again, tests showed high levels of fluridone, Aiello said. By that point, Aiello’s legal team knew to check the Boating and Waterways website that publicizes when and where the state’s fleet of boats is conducting its herbicide treatments.
“Sure enough, Sycamore Slough was being sprayed exactly when we were planting,” said Steve Snider, a Lodi attorney representing Aiello and Uesugi Farms. The slough is where Aiello’s San Joaquin County farm pumps its irrigation water.
Aiello said the experience has been frustrating. He said he assumed state officials would have been extra cautious about spraying herbicides around sensitive crops after he filed his suit.
“You’d think that would have raised a flag with the state, and they’d say, .... Are there any peppers being grown here?” he said.
This summer, Aiello filed a complaint with the San Joaquin County agricultural commissioner whose office regulates spraying around crops and can issue administrative penalties. The county says it’s investigating.
Aiello’s allegations come as the Department of Boating and Waterways is defending its use of another controversial herbicide.
Since 2010, Boating and Waterways has put more than 14,000 gallons of Roundup into the Delta to kill floating aquatic plants, according to a McClatchy review of data provided by the agency.
The Roundup spraying continues even though last year another state agency listed glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, as a cancer-causing chemical under Proposition 65, the 1986 ballot initiative that requires warning labels for about 1,000 chemicals known to cause birth defects or cancer.
Monsanto, the giant agrochemical and biotech company that makes Roundup, insists its product is safe. It says claims to the contrary aren’t backed by scientific evidence. Several other government agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have concluded no evidence shows that glyphosate causes cancer.
Meanwhile, thousands of lawsuits alleging glyphosate causes cancer have been filed in state and federal courts across the country.
Federal scientists and Boating and Waterways officials say the relatively small amounts of the special blend of Roundup used in the Delta pose no risk to the water supply because the chemical is rendered inert when it gets wet and quickly dissipates in the billions of gallons of water that flow through the estuary.
When applied correctly, fluridone, which is not on the Prop. 65 list, is similarly safe, officials say. The state uses Roundup to kill vegetation floating on the surface. Fluridone kills submerged weeds.
Pesticide critics are troubled by the allegations in Aiello’s suit.
“Yet again the state has decided to unleash its arsenal of chemicals rather than invest in a comprehensive solution to plant problems,” said Paul Towers, the Sacramento-based organizing director and policy advocate for Pesticide Action Network North America.
Instead of using chemicals, Towers advocates for using mechanical harvesters and other non-toxic methods to remove the weeds. State officials do deploy the machines in certain areas, but they say they can only use them in a few locations because chopping up the weeds can actually make the problems worse because it disperses the plants. Plus, few landowners want thousands of tons of soggy plant material deposited on their lands.
Snider, Aiello’s attorney, said Delta farmers by and large believe that using herbicides to treat the invasive weeds clogging the estuary is important, and they support the state’s efforts. The state, Snider said, just needs to do a be a better neighbor to farmers in the area.
“We have no problem whatsoever with the program,” Snider said. “It’s just in the execution, they seem to have to completely ignored the impact it has on agriculture.”