Trouble in the Sac

Nevada's wastewater is causing sex problems in fish. But will Arizona get screwed by the solution?

One plan is to snake the chemical flow around the wash and dump it below Hoover Dam into Arizona. Biologists here are already getting nervous about the plan, which they cite as one of the main reasons for conducting the fish study.

"This action would directly pump water that has demonstrably affected the razorback sucker into the lower Colorado River, thus placing our [national wildlife refuges] closer to one known source of endocrine disrupting chemicals," a Fish and Wildlife study proposal asserts. "These concerns threaten the Arizona refuges, which provide critical refugia to endangered big-river fishes such as the razorback sucker and the bonytail chub." Fish and Wildlife biologists plan to include their findings in the regulatory approval process, should Arizona become the dumping ground for toilets in Nevada.

In the meantime, because of the sexual problems found in razorback suckers in Nevada, Fish and Wildlife officials are already using the Endangered Species Act to try to get wastewater treatment plants to begin monitoring for endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Dennis Porter, assistant director of utility services for the city of Henderson, says this kind of monitoring and treatment is expensive, but plants will probably begin doing both in the next 10 years.

Rand Carlson

Until then, scientists are hoping to shift the focus of the issue from Nevada to Arizona. Given the number of women on the pill (one in four, according to industry statistics), biologists expect to find fish in Arizona carrying traces of ethinyl estradiol, the chemical in birth control pills. They will also be testing for vitellogenin, an egg-yolk-related protein that is normally expressed in female fish but has been detected in males upstream in Lake Mead.

"It's weird for males to have that [protein]," says Carrie Marr, who is heading up the four-year study, scheduled to begin next spring. "It would be like a male having too many female hormones," she says.

Because razorback suckers are endangered, biologists cannot kill them to study the fish, so fluids will be taken to determine hormone levels. Carp, however, are plentiful and will be killed in order to remove and study their gonads.

Probing sex organs may sound rather intrusive, and even disturbing, but humans created this problem, scientists say, and one day, we may discover that problems with our wastewater have come back on us, if they haven't already.

"There's a lot we don't know," says Bevans. "If we're drinking water and we're putting things in water, we need to know if it's creating harmful effects down the line."

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