Heavy Metals in Klamath River Water are Not Dangerous to Health, but Do Not Drink It

KLAMATH COUNTY, Ore. — Concentrations of heavy metals in the water of the Klamath River are not a threat to public health but is not suitable as drinking water, says an environmental program manager with the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, Matt St. John.

In a Jefferson Radio interview, St. John said no water in California was suitable for drinking unless treated, and that included the Klamath River.

Last month, the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors declared a state of emergency because of water quality issues in the Lower Klamath Dam and River. However, St. John reiterated previous explanations that while the presence of heavy metals was elevated, it was nevertheless expected as the aftermath of the Klamath River dam removal project.


The Presence of Arsenic, Aluminum, and Lead is Part of the Klamath River Basin Geology

High levels of arsenic, aluminum, and lead in the water of the Klamath River is a natural occurrence and part of the Klamath River Basin geology.

According to St. John, those metals accumulated in sediment behind dam walls and were flushed down the river as the Klamath River dam dismantling project progressed. He admitted that it could have been alarming to residents to have high turbidity waters and related high levels of metal concentrations, gushing downstream, but said neither event came as a surprise.

Commenting on the outcome of a water quality report commissioned by Siskiyou County, St. John admitted that samples taken in January were found to pose a risk to public health and the water was unsuitable for human consumption. However, he said higher levels of heavy metals in the water were expected to occur so soon after the start of the dam dismantling project.

“The water quality conditions in the Klamath River based on that one sample does not present risks to public health, from the water board’s standpoint,” stated St. John.


Heavy Metal Presence Continuously Subsiding

Heavy metals and turbidity in the Klamath River water is continuously subsiding as the sediment in the dam reservoirs is drawn down and flushed out of the river basin system, explained St. John. He said it was “safe to assume” that metal concentrations are decreasing as the sediment concentrations subside.

Apart from the water monitoring exercise undertaken by the Siskiyou County, no additional monitoring has taken place. But, said St. John, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation has agreed to undertake a new round of monitoring. Results are as yet unknown. St John said the results would establish if heavy metals in the water were subsiding, which would establish whether another round of monitoring was needed.

The quality of the water poses no threat to recreational activities on the river, such as boating and fishing, said St. John. The water was harmless to the touch and posed no dermal skin exposure risk.

The California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) did a water analysis regarding accidental ingestion while swimming. The analysis established that a child between the ages of 7 to 10 could swim in the river for one-and-a-half hours without any level of concern.

St. John dismissed a comparison of water quality between Klamath and the Copco or Iron Gate Reservoirs because of toxic algae. He said cyanobacteria was commonly found in reservoirs, exceeding public health thresholds. A comparison cannot be made between harmful algal blooms and heavy metals, said St. John, as toxic algae can kill dogs and sometimes, when dosages were extremely high, could result in the death of humans.

The public can keep abreast of sampling results on the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board website when the Klamath River Renewal Corporation makes its report.

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