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Contaminated Splendor

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There's no fishing, swimming or boating on Arizona's second largest lake, which has suddenly appeared in the desert about 80 miles southwest of Phoenix.

It's been 12 years since there was enough winter rainfall to swell the Gila River to the point that it creates the huge lake behind the Painted Rock Dam, about 18 miles northwest of Gila Bend.

But there is little to celebrate about the rare emergence of this massive body of water, second in size in the area only to Roosevelt Lake. Its water will disappear in a few short months under the scorching summer sun, leaving behind a poisonous legacy.

The Painted Rock Reservoir is closed to the public because it is one of the most toxic sinkholes of pesticide contamination in the country.

On a recent March afternoon, I traveled down to the reservoir and found a beautiful sight. The lake's shimmering blue water was surrounded by brilliant yellow, purple and orange desert wildflowers.

I walked down to the water's edge and saw a two-foot-long catfish slithering through the shallow weeds. A turtle popped its head above the surface for a split second and disappeared. A great blue heron lunged from its watery perch and ascended in a timeless arc.

But lurking beneath the surface is an ugly tale of what happens when technological advances are put into practice too soon. The reason the reservoir is so polluted is because the Gila River between Phoenix and Painted Rock Dam is laced with pesticides.

Pesticides have not only made the Gila's fish and aquatic wildlife dangerous to eat, residues from those pesticides are showing up in milk sold to the public.

How did this happen?

Forty-seven years ago, state and federal agriculture officials launched a massive attack on the pink bollworm, spraying the powerful insecticide DDT on 65,000 acres of Maricopa County cotton.

From May 15 to July 19, 1958, about 500,000 pounds of DDT were applied to farmland, mostly in the western county, which is now getting rapidly converted to suburbs.

It was just the first of a series of sweeping DDT applications that would eventually affect more than 100,000 acres in Maricopa County. The Pink Bollworm Eradication Program continued well into the 1960s.

Despite the deluge of DDT, the pest survived. And so has DDT's progeny -- long after the pesticide was banned in Arizona in 1969.

DDT's primary derivative is DDE, which also is considered by federal and international health agencies as a probable human carcinogen. While DDT has essentially disappeared from Arizona's soil, DDE persists in the ground and has spread through our food chain.

DDE routinely shows up in trace amounts in Arizona's milk supply, transferred to cows through hay grown in contaminated soil. The amount of DDE detected in milk is not considered hazardous to humans, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

But no one is monitoring the long-term effects of DDE in milk on Arizonans, particularly on nursing women and their babies. DDE has been found to sharply reduce the lactation period for nursing mothers and is known to accumulate in mother's milk that is higher in fat than cow's milk.

"We have not shared the data with state Department of Health Services, and it has not requested this because monitoring reports show DDE is well below the action level," says Kathy Decker, a Department of Agriculture spokeswoman.

While the state hasn't shown much concern over the presence of DDE in milk supplies, it advises against eating fish and aquatic wildlife taken from the Gila River.

Scientists estimate that approximately 5,000 tons of DDT have been transported from farmland to the Gila west of Phoenix. This winter's heavy rains are expected to transfer more pesticide residue from farms into the river.

"It's in the sediment and surface soil, and that drainage goes right down to the Gila River basin," says Will Humble, chief of environmental health for the state Department of Health Services. "It's probably the most contaminated waterway in Arizona."

DDT's impact on the wildlife in the river has been profound.

By the 1970s, the Gila was the most DDT-contaminated stream in the western United States. In the 1980s, federal wildlife officials found that DDE residues in birds collected in the Goodyear-Avondale area were among the highest in the nation.

By the early 1990s, state environmental and health officials posted warning signs not to eat aquatic wildlife taken from the Gila River between 59th Avenue in west Phoenix and Painted Rock Dam.

DDT and DDE are not the only dangerous pesticides found in the Gila downstream from Phoenix. After DDT was banned in 1969, farmers began using another type of organochlorine pesticide called toxaphene.

Like DDT, toxaphene remains in the environment for years and is known to accumulate in breast milk. It was banned in 1982 after it was determined to be a probable human carcinogen.

While it is difficult to reach the remote Painted Rock Reservoir operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Gila River west of Phoenix is easily accessible.

During normal flow periods, almost all water in the lower Gila originates as discharges from two Phoenix wastewater treatment plants. The 100 million gallons of water a day are enough for the Gila to flow downstream to about Estrella Mountain Park in Avondale before it percolates into the soil.

This stretch of river between the 91st Avenue wastewater treatment plant and Estrella Mountain Park has become a very popular fishing area for immigrants and the poor. Other than posting a few warning signs along the river, the state has done little to discourage people from eating the fish and turtles taken from the stream.

"We don't monitor it very heavily," admits Larry Riley, chief of fisheries for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

State health and environmental officials say mostly poor Hispanics are routinely consuming aquatic wildlife from the river.

"We've seen people fishing right by the warning signs," says Humble. "When you talk to them about it, they say, 'It tastes all right.'"

While the fish may taste fine, the pesticide residues they contain can be hazardous, particularly to children and pregnant women. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality warns against consuming more than one eight-ounce meal every seven weeks.

"We certainly urge folks to adhere to the fish-consumption advisory," says Cortland Coleman, ADEQ spokesman.

Well, that's all fine and dandy, but few people directly affected know about the dangers of consuming fish from the Gila River because the state hasn't alerted the public properly.

State health and environmental officials need to immediately step up efforts to inform consumers of the hazardous conditions along the Gila River -- including even banning fishing in the area.

Otherwise, this appears to be a classic case of environmental racism where the poor and minorities are subjected to dangerous conditions they know little if anything about.

I'm saying, the state cannot merely post a few signs along the river warning about the dangers and walk away.

During my drive along the Gila last week, I found only two warning signs. Officials say many of the signs posted in the past have been shot up, run over or defaced. Well, replace them! And put up more.

But the signs should only be the first step.

The state should mount a massive public-education campaign, including repeated television and newspaper advertisements in Spanish-language newspapers. The state should also conduct far more extensive outreach into the Hispanic community, including holding a series of public meetings about the pesticide contamination of the river.

It is also time for Arizona's health, environmental and agricultural officials to reconsider their hands-off approach to monitoring the long-term health effects of DDE-laced milk on Arizona consumers. This appears to be an effort by state officials to simply ignore the persistent contamination of the food supply to protect the powerful dairy industry.

We have the right to know with as much scientific certainty as possible what DDE-laced milk is doing to our children. The scientific evidence is mixed, but there are troubling indications that DDE and toxaphene residues may be causing serious health problems.

The state should conduct studies to determine what's happening health-wise to residents of new housing developments built on old cotton fields that were repeatedly bombed with DDT in the 1950s and 1960s. Thousands of homes are put up every year on farmland west of Phoenix, and residents have no idea that they are moving onto potentially poisoned ground.

University of Arizona scientists found DDT and DDE residues to a depth of 18 inches in the soil in a 1985 study. This research needs to be updated.

It is shameful that one of the most visually scenic stretches of waterway in central Arizona is one of the most polluted in the nation. Unfortunately, there is little that can be done to remove the pesticides from the soil other than letting time take its course.

Still, this dreadful experience spanning nearly half a century should not be swept aside as merely a footnote in Arizona's history. The state must take action to protect not only its citizens, but anybody else -- including poor immigrants.

There is nothing more precious in the desert than water. What does it say about our governments if they cater to business interests to the point that they don't properly inform an unsuspecting public that scarce desert water is polluted to the point of no return?

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