Letters From the West

Idaho prepares to measure fish consumption to set water quality standard

A tasty salmon dinner (Idaho Statesman file photo)

A tasty salmon dinner (Idaho Statesman file photo)

If you are a fish eater, the state of Idaho may want to talk to you soon.

A contractor may call you even if you don’t eat fish as a part of a fish consumption study approved by the Idaho Legislature earlier this year. But first, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality has to put out bids for the company that would do the study, which is expected in the next month or so.

You also may get a call from contractors working for Idaho’s five Indian tribes. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has hired a contractor to assess how much fish their members eat.

Fish consumption rates are important for water quality regulators because they are used to calculate pollution standards that protect human health. Since the tribes are doing their own study, DEQ officials, backed up by the business community, convinced lawmakers they needed to do their own study to ensure they had the data to defend whatever standards they set.

In 2011, Oregon updated its fish consumption rates to 175 grams per day, giving Oregon the most protective water quality standards in the nation. Idaho and Washington’s current standard is based on a consumption rate of 6.5 grams per day, which is about 2 servings per month, or as one wag explained, enough fish to fit on a saltine.

EPA has told Idaho and Washington that their consumption rate estimate is out of date and under estimates consumption by tribes like the Nez Perce and the Shoshone-Bannock. Consider how salmon runs have ballooned in recent and how much more salmon is available for tribal members spiritual sustenance.

For comparison, the American Heart Association recommends that people consume 2 servings of fish per week. How many are caught in Idaho waters is the key issue.

Northwest tribal leaders want Idaho and Washington to follow Oregon’s example. They stepped up their efforts Monday when Oregon and Washington issued fish consumption advisories for the Columbia River.

Tests done on fish on the Columbia River showed levels of polychlorinated biphenyls at 183 parts per million, way above the 0.47 million parts per million federal standard, and mercury levels of 0.26 parts per million, slightly above the 0.22 ppm limit.

“The tribes believe that the long-term solution to this problem isn’t keeping people from eating contaminated fish—it’s keeping fish from being contaminated in the first place,” said Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Chairman Joel Moffett. “Armed with higher fish consumption rates and water quality standards, we hope there will be a greater motivation to remove pollutants from the Columbia River and its tributaries.”

The Idaho study will look at two groups, the general population and people who hold Idaho fishing licenses, said Don Essig, a DEQ water quality specialist who is leading the effort to put together the study.

“The thinking is they may be eating more fish,” Essig said.

Since many waters in Idaho already are not meeting current criteria, lowering the criteria won’t immediately improve water quality, only the list of streams that are not meeting the criteria. But eventually Idaho would have to meet the higher criteria, which would benefit people who eat fish from our waters.

That could add new costs to Idaho businesses but then again, no one wants to have toxins in their water or meal.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West