California says weedkiller Roundup could cause cancer, but California also sprays it into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta which is home to much of the water supply for central and southern California.
California government officially put glyphosate, the main active ingredient in Roundup, on the state’s list of chemicals known to cause cancer in 2017. The delta is also suffering from a major invasion of non-native plants because of this, California Boating and Waterways has sprayed more than 14,000 gallons of Roundup into the delta since 2010, according to the Sacramento Bee’s exclusive report.
Operation Poison Drinking Water to Save the River Habitat
When California added glyphosate to its chemicals known to cause cancer list, the timing coincided with similar warnings from the World Health Organization which also linked it to cancer. It also concided with hundreds of lawsuits targetting Monsanto (Monsanto was recently bought out by Bayer), the company manufacturing the herbicide, after hundreds of people claimed the use of Roundup contributed to their cancer. The first of those lawsuits is currently underway in California.
California says it is caught between a rock and a hard place because the Delta is suffering from the invasion of non-native plants. So California is using Roundup to destroy aquatic plants that threaten the wellness of the water habitat.
“It’s a real conundrum,” said Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis. “It might be one of these cases where you have to poison the Delta to save it.”
State officials say the invasive plants entangle boat propellers, hinder free access to marinas, clog drinking water pipes, damage fish habitats and add to the reduction in fish populations in the Delta. So they see poisoning the Delta as the best way to save it. Gloria Sandoval, spokeswoman for the Division of Boating and Waterways, said officials are monitoring the situation to ensure Roundup does not contaminate drinking water.
“Everybody wants to make sure we’re taking care of the Delta and its natural resources and the drinking water as well,” said Gloria Sandoval, spokeswoman for the Division of Boating and Waterways.
But critics point out the hypocrisy of one state agency condemning a chemical agent while another agent embraces it and uses it on public drinking water supplies.
“There is irony in one arm of the state acknowledging that the chemical is cancer-causing while the other continues to use thousands of gallons of it in the hub of the state’s drinking water,” said Paul Towers, the Sacramento based organizing director and policy advocate for Pesticide Action Network North America.
“At the very least, we need a deep assessment of whether or not the use of Roundup is the appropriate method for controlling or managing these invasive plants,” Towers added.
According to John Madsen, a U.S. Department of Agriculture biologist based at the Weed Research and Information Center at U.C. Davis, the state uses controversial Roundup to kill water weeds because it “dissipates pretty quickly” in water due to the large size of the Delta. He also added that Roundup “is absorbed by the plants. Glyphosate has no activity in the water itself. It’s only active when it’s on the foliage of the plants.”
Madsen says the weedkiller is critical to keeping the water flowing through the Delta because the non-native plants choke and cut off the water flow.
“We’ve seen this huge ramp-up that occurred during the drought. … There are entire channels that are completely choked and closed because of the weeds,“ said Madsen.
Roundup is only used on plants that surface above water, to target underwater plants state officials use sinking pellets containing the herbicide fluridone. Last year the state used 198,100 pounds of fluridone.
To keep the public informed, California publishes on its website where the state is using weedkillers. There are 29 boats in the state’s weedkiller operations, all trackable on the website.
Delta fishing enthusiasts aren’t convinced of the herbicide’s safety and have been raising alarm on social media. Mike Birch, who has fished in the Delta for years, blames the herbicide for dead fish and other deceased animals spotted throughout the Delta.
“I said, ‘What in the heck is going on this year?’” Birch said. “You’re not supposed to nuke everything.”
But John Madsen counter’s Birch’s concerns and says, “There has been a very extensive amount of toxicity studies on these chemicals. The rates that they’re using are not going to cause any fish kills. There are lots of things that can cause fish kills besides the pesticides.”