The history of compromised sediment quality in the LSJR from industrial and urban activities continues today in many of the downstream regions of the river (Figure 5.46). Some contaminants, such as organochlorine pesticides and PCBs, are legacies of past misjudgments, but they continue to plague the river by their persistence in the sediments. Other contaminants, such as PAHs, are common byproducts of modern urban life and the shipping industry, though the LSJR may still suffer from PAHs from past mishandling of creosote. Metals are pervasive throughout the basin sediments at levels substantially above what is considered natural background levels and there is no sign that concentrations are diminishing. Overall, the downstream LSJR basin contaminant levels are similar to other large, industrialized, urban rivers. However, upstream in Area 4, the extent of contamination appears less, with no samples that exceeded toxicity standards, but there is also less data about that region so the status is uncertain. Reductions in emissions and discharges of PAHs and metals reported by many industries since 2001 may lead to lower levels of contaminants in the LSJR system in the future.
There are some lower basin sediments with very high levels of contaminants compared to other coastal sediments. In particular, several of the tributaries have shown severe contamination over the years. Of particular concern is the large Cedar-Ortega basin, which has repeatedly exhibited among the highest levels and frequencies of contamination over the years. It has been recognized at least since 1983 that the large, complex network of tributaries is burdened by years of discharges of wastewaters and runoff from small, poorly managed industries, and from identified and unidentified hazardous waste sites. This is particularly true of Cedar River. The Cedar-Ortega basin also suffers from its location in the middle of the LSJR, where the transition between riverine and oceanic inputs promotes sedimentation and reduces flushing. These factors produce a highly stressed system. However, recent construction of a stormwater treatment facility on the Cedar River should improve the situation in that area. Rice Creek is another western tributary of the LSJR that has exhibited long-term pressure from a variety of contaminants and it has often had the highest contaminant concentrations in the region. Relocation of the discharge of a pulp and paper mill effluent from the creek to the mainstem in 2013 will have an unknown impact on the sediment contaminants discussed. The north arm section of the river to Talleyrand is heavily impacted by PAHs, and suffers from proximity to power plants, shipping, petroleum handling, and legacy contamination.
Outside of the areas of highest concern, contaminants act as underlying stressors all throughout the basin. Their individual effects may be minor, but their cumulative effects become important. There are small variations in the specific compounds that are most important from site to site and year to year, but many areas continue to be contaminated by more than one chemical at levels that are likely to be harmful to the river’s benthic inhabitants. Even the relatively pristine south mainstem portion of the LSJR has contamination that may affect sensitive organisms.
Overall, the mass of contaminants released to the atmosphere from point sources in the LSJR region has significantly declined over a decade. However, little change in surface water discharges has occurred and there have been significant increases in discharges of some metals. Water concentrations of several metals have generally declined in the last few years in the mainstem and are generally below water quality criteria, though exceptions are copper and silver. Continued efforts are needed to reduce pollutant loadings through stormwater control projects, permitting and best management practices.