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Dunsmuir
10 years later Upper Sacramento River alive after deadly pesticide spill

Glen Martin / SF Chronicle 9jul01

Cantara Loop, -- Stand on this railroad trestle and look upstream, then down.

The view is much the same: a lovely river with water like translucent jade, sheltered by cottonwoods and alders in the full leaf of high summer.

Trout dimple the water, and western tanagers and Bullock's orioles trill from the foliage. Butterflies -- fritillaries, tiger swallowtails and monarchs -- sip nectar from the bankside wildflowers.

But 10 years ago, the downstream vista was markedly different. The river below the Cantara Loop railroad trestle reeked of agricultural chemicals. Dead trout clogged the eddies. All the wildlife that teemed in the Upper Sacramento River canyon, from songbirds to otters, had fled. Or died.

On July 15, 1991, a 20,000-gallon tank railroad car brimming with the herbicide metam sodium derailed from a northbound Southern Pacific freight train, jumping the trestle and rupturing on the rocks below. The car's entire load spilled into the water.

Virtually every aquatic organism on a 40-mile stretch of river was killed, setting the biological stopwatch back to zero.

The spill also had a catastrophic effect on the nearby town of Dunsmuir, which depended on recreational users of the Sacramento River for much of its economic well-being.

Today, the effects of the spill are no longer visible, and precautions have been taken to ensure that such a catastrophe won't happen again. Trout have returned to the area. Dunsmuir is once again thriving, bolstered by summer hordes of fly fishermen.

But while the river has generally recovered, some scars -- or more accurately, gaps -- remain.

"The main thing this spill has taught us is just what a complex, diverse ecosystem this river is," said Craig Martz, the north state coastal conservation planning director for the California Department of Fish and Game.

SOME SPECIES MISSING

"Most of the pieces are back in place," Martz said, "but a few are missing, and may remain that way." Most significant among these are the mollusks that once inhabited the affected area.

"We've identified 27 different (types) of snails and clams in the Upper Sacramento," said Martz. "Many of them are endemic to specific microhabitats --

say a particular spring near the river, or a certain part of one little tributary."

The spill was particularly hard on these small gastropods and bivalves, and may well have extinguished one or more species. "Mollusk recolonization has literally occurred at a snail's pace," Martz said.

Also absent are signal crayfish, a crustacean that was common in the river prior to the spill. "We have no idea why they haven't come back, but since they weren't native to the system -- they're an introduced species -- we don't consider it especially problematic," he said.

There's no doubt that the Upper Sacramento's ecosystem is somewhat simpler than it was before the spill, Martz said, "but it's still a very rich system."

Some particularly good news: The river's insect populations have rebounded to extravagant levels. Aquatic insects constitute a significant chunk of the food web for most riverine systems, and the Upper Sacramento was no exception.

Gigantic hatches of stone flies, caddis flies and mayflies sustained not just the abundant trout -- but salamanders, frogs and songbirds as well. Indirectly, the hatches also supported the ospreys, mink and otters that preyed on the fish and amphibians.

TROUT ARE BIGGER

Still, it appears that trout growth rates are now slower than they were before the spill. "The reason is unclear," Martz said. "There are lots of bugs around now, but it could be the base food supply remains lower than it was pre- spill."

The fish nevertheless are numerous, and the average size is larger than before the spill.

"Our snorkel surveys show we have at least 2,000 fish per river mile, and they're averaging 11 to 12 inches in length," Martz said. "Before the spill, they were 8 to 10 inches. We don't know why they're bigger -- it could be from less competition. There's no longer any planting, so there could fewer fish."

After the spill, Fish and Game stopped its extensive planting of hatchery trout in the area and decreed most of the river a catch-and-release wild fishery. Only artificial lures with barbless hooks are allowed.

This decision has had far-reaching economic effects. Though objections have been raised by some locals -- who were used to pulling trout out of their hometown river for the frying pan as the whim struck -- reaction from fly fishing purists has been overwhelmingly positive.

The "Upper Sac" is now an internationally renowned wild trout fishery, providing superb dry fly angling in one of California's most beautiful river canyons. Its reputation has infused Dunsmuir with renewed economic vigor.

"This has been the best season in years," said Bill Tate, the owner of a fly shop in Dunsmuir. "More people have landed big fish this year -- or had them break off -- than at any time I can remember. Business is very good."

Tate said recreational fly fishing has supplanted the railroad as Dunsmuir's primary economic base.

"Fly fishing isn't exactly a rich man's sport, but it does tend to attract people who are financially secure," he said. "When they come up here, they leave a lot of dollars behind."

Shelly Heiken, who works at Country Drug in Dunsmuir, celebrates the town's current good fortune -- and remembers the bad old days only too well.

"I was working the day the spill happened," she recalled. "It killed everything from here to Lake Shasta. People living by the river had to leave fast, and they were buying essential items from us. We had a hard time of it in Dunsmuir for years -- but things are finally getting back to normal."

Down by Cantara Loop, hikers and anglers marvel at the natural grandeur of the canyon.

"We haven't done too well today, but we had to pass up a lot of good water because we don't have the stamina and balance we used to," said Sacramento resident Bill Kirn, who recently fly fished the canyon with his wife, Dorothy Kirn.

"But we've talked to lots of people -- we know the fish are here," Kirn said. "It's so beautiful in this canyon. It's good to see the river coming back."

PREVENTION MEASURES

Residents and visiting anglers alike are encouraged that chances for a reprise of the spill are significantly slimmer than they once were, despite the fact that railroad cars full of dangerous chemicals still ply the tracks.

In the past year, Union Pacific has constructed a massive barrier on the Cantara Loop trestle. (The railroad bought the route from Southern Pacific in the mid-1990s.) The guard rail, fabricated from gigantic tubular steel, looks more than adequate for the task of preventing railroad cars from arcing into the river below.

"It cost about $3 million, and it definitely makes things safer," said Martz. "The railroad has also done a lot of work on rail bed improvement."

Changes also have been made in the configuration of trains traversing the canyon.

"Derailments here have typically happened when there's a surge in an engine pulling a long train through several curves, jerking the cars off the track," Martz said. "So the railroad now keeps the trains shorter, and uses pushing engines as well as pulling engines."

Bad as the spill was, Martz concludes, it nevertheless provided an invaluable service:

"It made people realize just how priceless this resource is," he said. "Nobody can ever take it for granted again."

E-mail Glen Martin at glenmartin@sfchronicle.com

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