N.D. study checking surface water for pesticide content; goal is documentation, more accurate regulation

SAWYER, N.D. -- With all of the public concern about pesticides, you might think the government is checking all of the time for farm chemicals in lakes and streams.

SAWYER, N.D. -- With all of the public concern about pesticides, you might think the government is checking all of the time for farm chemicals in lakes and streams.

You'd be wrong.

Sometimes the government can regulate chemicals without full information. A new study by the North Dakota Department of Agriculture is aimed at making sure that any regulations are fact-based -- not extrapolations based on computer models.

The department recently hired Jessica Orr as the agency's first full-time environmental scientist to supervise the collection of data and to oversee the department's endangered species program.

"If we have pesticides levels -- if so, where they're at, and if they're at concentrations that are a problem or not," Orr says.


Building a biologist

Orr grew up on a farm in Stutsman County, near Ypsilanti, N.D.

She started her career in wildlife science and biology when in college.

"I always kind of liked the outdoors -- wildlife -- so it seemed like a kind of natural fit to study that."

She did her undergraduate biology work at Boston University, then went on to Tennessee Technology University in Cookeville, Tenn., for a master's degree. Her thesis had to do with the impact of the Eurasian Collared Dove, that likely spread into the United States in the 1980s.

Orr worked for the U.S. Geological Survey for two summers. Last year, she worked at Lake Sakakawea on a piping plover endangered species project and, before that, with a mammal project near Woodworth, N.D.

On Nov. 1, Orr started work at the North Dakota Department of Agriculture, where she oversees two programs.

One is the department's endangered species program, writing a plan that the state would help the EPA protect species without overburdened to pesticide users.


The other is specific to water quality -- both surface and groundwater. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency always has been concerned about groundwater, but the agency recently has become increasingly interested in surface waters -- lakes and streams -- and pesticides.

Measure versus model

State regulators perceive that the EPA is becoming stricter.

"The EPA has their 'pesticides of interest' that they want every state to evaluate," Orr says. "You have to prove that you don't have a problem if you don't want regulations instead of the other way around."

The EPA allows the state to choose its method for evaluating these pesticides in water

First, the state can use computer models to determine how much of the pesticides could get into streams, rivers and lakes.

"There are some sophisticated models out there, but those tend to be more conservative, or restrictive," Orr says. "There are some arguments that they're too conservative."

Second, the state can physically measure these chemicals.


"Models are nice, but they aren't as accurate as going out and measuring," Orr says. "There are a lot of unknowns in the models. We're trying to do this as unbiased and scientific as possible, and see what we find."

The EPA gave every state the same 57 chemicals of interest to investigate -- the same list from New York to Hawaii.

"We added some of our own," Orr says.

The state project is collecting data on chemicals at nine sites in three major rivers and their tributaries. Those include the Sheyenne River, Mouse (Souris) River and the Yellowstone River.

The sampling is starting at three-week intervals, from April through October. Much of the $75,000 cost of the study is funded by the EPA.

The agriculture department is cooperating on six of the sites with testing that already is being done by the state Health Department. The other three are conducted by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

The first year is kind of a pilot program, Orr says.

The samples are collected in sophisticated devices. Some are made of Teflon to prevent chemical reactions from some kinds of plastic. The samples are sent to a laboratory in Oregon, which tests for 186 chemicals.


"We have 118 pesticides of interest -- finalists we're submitted to EPA -- and we're analyzing 76 of them on that list this year," Orr says. Data will be collected on the full 186 pesticides.

Seeing tenths of ppb

"When the lab tests them, we can test a whole suite of chemicals for the same price. We added some commonly used pesticides in North Dakota -- not because we think they're a problem, but because they're used a lot, so we figured, let's take a look at it."

The department has formed advisory committee for water quality issues. The committee, involves representatives from various agencies -- the North Dakota State University and its Extension Service, North Dakota Game and Fish, Water Commission, Parks and Recreation, Health Department, as well as federal agencies -- the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Some of the same players also are on a separate groundwater committee, which is similar but doesn't have the wildlife interests.

Among other things, the committee helped determine how often the sampling would be done for this project.

The laboratory can detect chemicals to the 0.1 to 1 parts-per-billion levels.

"For most chemicals, 0.1 ppb is not likely to have an effect, but there are a few chemicals where, at those low concentrations, it can have an effect," Orr says. "It's better to know, even if it's at low concentration. The 0.1 ppb level might not be our level of concern at all; we're just testing for the lowest concentrations we can."


Some pesticides in the environment can create an accumulation problem in the environment, she acknowledges, where a fish is eaten by another fish, which is eaten by a fish-eating bird, for example. "Most of the pesticides that you have heard of being banned -- things like DDT -- are already banned. Most current pesticides don't 'bio-accumulate.'"

Orr envisions the data to be helpful, either way.

If a particular pesticide is too prevalent in surface water, that's important to know. "If it would be hazardous to recreational use, or if there were concentrations that might harm endangered species, we might come up with mitigation measures to lower that," she says.

If the chemical doesn't show up, that could be important in making sure products aren't overregulated.

"If the EPA were to put out an endangered species 'bulletin' for a particular product, or we'd be considered for an 'emergency exemption,' to use a chemical, five years down the road we would have the data to indicate we haven't found it in the surface water, or only at a certain (small) concentrations," Orr says.

Montana and Minnesota both have surface water monitoring, but Orr believes South Dakota doesn't. Montana found a lot of different pesticides in their water, but not at high levels. A North Dakota pilot project in 2005 found only one chemical in one river, but the study tested for 50 pesticides -- less than a third of the current test.

"The question is, do we have pesticides in our water? If so, what concentrations do we have?" Orr says. "It's a lot easier to have a response if the EPA asks you about the list of 57, and you've done this testing." Orr says. "A lot of states have monitoring data from years and years. We're starting from scratch in North Dakota."

Orr says the tests will go on, even though this is a dry or drought year in some areas.


On one hand, rainwater is one of the biggest way pesticides get into the water, so a drought means there could be less of that activity. On the other hand, a wetter year means more dilution.

"Our biggest question is 'Do we have pesticides in our water and at what concentrations?" Orr says. Preliminary data will come out in October. It will be three or four years before the findings will carry much weight.

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