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Quality of Potomac water raises warning signs

A recent Associated Press article I read was a good follow-up to the column that I wrote last week regarding water quality.

My lead-in was addressing the fact that two cities, New York and San Francisco, were using bluegill to monitor the area’s water quality.

Apparently, scientists have found that abnormal “intersex” fish, with both male and female characteristics have been discovered in the Potomac River and its tributaries across the Capitol Region. This has raised questions about how contaminants are affecting millions of people who drink the tap water.



Water purveyors in the area are unsure what to make of these results and the impact that this may have on humans.

So far there is no evidence that tap water from the Potomac is unsafe to drink.



The worrisome fish were first found in a West Virginia stream in 2003. Scientists are now finding male smallmouth and largemouth bass with immature eggs in their sex organs at testing sites around the region.

Recent testing revealed that more than 80 percent of all male smallmouth bass found were growing eggs, according to a fish pathologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Also, another test at a different location showed that seven of 13 male largemouth bass showed some kind of unusual feminine characteristic. Six of the seven tested positive for a protein used to produce eggs and the other three actually carried eggs.

Even though scientists have not identified the source, or sources, of the problem, the results appear to suggest that the Potomac River and its tributaries have a problem with so-called “endocrine disrupters,” which can tamper with natural chemical signals.

Over the last decade, pollutants mimicking hormones have raised alarms around the world as alligators, frogs, polar bears and other animals have developed abnormalities.

Scientists have identified a large number of pollutants that could be to blame, including estrogen from processed sewage, animal estrogen from farm manure, certain pesticides and soap additives.

I recall reading another story in 2000 regarding the same issue with salmon on the Columbia River in Washington. The study concluded that this sex issue was apparently one of the reasons that fish were not spawning successfully and the overall numbers of fish had been diminishing.

In 1996 Congress required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to study how the pollutants may affect human health.

To date, the agency has not tested any chemical, according to the AP article. The director of the EPA’s Office of Science Coordination and Policy indicated that it was a very difficult program.

This really stresses the importance of water quality issues and the efforts of the locally based Truckee River Watershed Council and their Water Quality Monitoring group, the Truckee River Aquatic Monitors (TRAM).

As you may recall, TRAM tracks long-term water quality through the study of macro-invertebrates (aka bugs). TRAM conducts field sampling events each summer and twice monthly lab sessions each winter.

The summer sampling events usually begin around noon and last between three to five hours. During each session volunteers will learn field collection techniques for aquatic macro-invertebrates and habitat assessment skills.

TRAM needs volunteers to conduct its local testing.

If you are interested in attending a session and helping out, contact Program Manager Beth Christman at 550-8760 or info@truckeewc.org for more detailed information on when and where to meet.

Bruce Ajari is a Truckee resident and regular fishing columnist for the Sierra Sun and other area newspapers.


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