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Occurrence, fate, and transport of aerially applied herbicides to control invasive buffelgrass within Saguaro National Park Rincon Mountain District, Arizona, 2015–18

September 1, 2021

The spread of the invasive and fire-adapted buffelgrass (Cenchrus ciliaris L.) threatens desert ecosystems by competing for resources, increasing fuel loads, and creating wildfire connectivity. The Rincon Mountain District of Saguaro National Park addressed this natural resource threat with the use of glyphosate-based herbicides (GBHs). In 2010, the Rincon Mountain District initiated an aerial restoration plan to control dense buffelgrass patches in remote areas and implemented a trial project to evaluate the effects of aerial restoration techniques that included the helicopter application of GBHs. In 2014, more than 250 acres of buffelgrass in the Rincon Mountain District were treated with the aerial application of GBHs. This widespread aerial application of GBHs continued through 2018, but the potential transport and effects to aquatic ecosystems were unknown.

In 2015–18, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the National Park Service, studied the occurrence, distribution, fate, and transport of glyphosate in surface water and sediments derived from areas that were treated during past and current aerial herbicide applications. Three watersheds, treated with different regimens of GBHs, were sampled for glyphosate and the primary metabolite of glyphosate, aminomethylphosphonic acid (AMPA), during various hydrologic flow conditions. Water and aquatic sediment were collected from three watersheds, each in a different stage of application during the U.S. Geological Survey study. The unnamed watershed above the Loma Verde Trailhead referred to by the National Park Service as “Loma Verde canyon” had received no aerial treatment since 2014, whereas the Box Canyon watershed was aerially treated every year beginning in 2014. The Madrona Canyon watershed was first sprayed in 2016 and aerial application continued once a year though the entirety of the study. In addition, terrestrial soil samples were sampled from areas sprayed to understand dissipation rates and herbicide transport via sediments washing away during rainfall runoff. The concentrations present in water and sediment samples were compared to ecological benchmarks and characterized within the context of the environmental conditions of the park setting.

Of the 48 water samples collected and analyzed for glyphosate and AMPA, 10.4 percent and 14.6 percent were detected above the laboratory minimum detection limit, respectively. Mean water concentrations, calculated using specific statistical methods for non-detects, were equal to the laboratory minimum detection limit of 0.02 microgram per liter for samples collected in all the watersheds. In aquatic sediments, glyphosate and AMPA were detected in 10.7 and 25.0 percent of the samples, whereas 89.5 and 100 percent of the terrestrial soil samples had detections for glyphosate and AMPA, respectively. Mean aquatic sediment concentrations were 1.13 and 4.42 micrograms per kilogram (μg/kg) for glyphosate and AMPA, respectively. Mean terrestrial soil concentrations were orders of magnitude greater than water and aquatic sediment with concentrations of 678 μg/kg for AMPA and 1,240 μg/kg for glyphosate. Hours after glyphosate-based herbicide was applied, the concentrations of glyphosate and AMPA were present in terrestrial soil samples near or above the laboratory maximum detection limit of 5,000 μg/kg. The Box Canyon watershed was the most intensively treated watershed in terms of total land area treated, total amount of GBH applied, and number of years treated. The frequent and large volume of treatment resulted in the highest number of detections of glyphosate and AMPA in water (3 and 7 detections, respectively) and in aquatic sediment (2 and 6 detections, respectively) samples. In comparison, the other two watersheds had two or fewer detections for glyphosate and AMPA in water and aquatic sediment.

Glyphosate detected in pools was associated with increased rainfall closer in time to the last herbicide treatment. Glyphosate and AMPA concentration ratios above one, along with stable-isotope and tritium results, indicated that runoff processes were the primary transport mechanism for the two compounds when found in streams and pools rather than subsurface recharge or deeper flow paths. One pool in a small tributary of Box Canyon consistently had detections of glyphosate and AMPA in aquatic sediments, but these frequent concentrations were likely related to the intensive application upstream, near the steep terrain above the head of the channel that supplies the downstream pool. Intense flows during summer rainfall events move treated sediments into this channel where vegetation and the incised bedrock banks of the pool retained those sediments and ultimately led to frequent detections of both compounds. Isotope results in most of the pools and tinajas indicated that the water source had residence time representative of recently recharged waters, on the order of years.

No water concentrations exceeded published criteria for human health or aquatic life. Median and maximum glyphosate and AMPA water concentrations were lower than those reported in other national assessments, but maximum concentrations observed in individual runoff samples were higher than median concentrations measured in the national assessments. A similar finding was observed with aquatic sediment concentrations measured in the Rincon Mountain District. Results from the study were compared and assessed in the context of other studies examining GBHs and their effects on amphibians, fish, and macroinvertebrates. This comparison was used to generalize the potential risk to aquatic species similar to those species in the Rincon Mountain District. Concentrations of published effect levels were several orders of magnitude greater than the highest concentration detected in water at the Rincon Mountain District. Most published studies evaluate acute and chronic toxicity for glyphosate and GBHs, and these criteria may not be representative of environmental conditions in the Rincon Mountain District. The classic lethal dose studies conducted in a controlled laboratory setting may not be suitable for comparison to the longer, variable, low-dose exposure conditions in the pools and tinajas in the Rincon Mountain District. However, this study determined that the fate of GBHs transported from treated areas to potential aquatic habitat was highly variable in occurrence, timing, and concentrations. This variability in glyphosate concentrations was too high, and the potential exposure was determined to be far too complex to directly compare with the results from controlled studies.

This study provides the first information collected on GBHs used to control invasive buffelgrass in a remote, mountainous, and semiarid setting. The information about the transport and fate of herbicide application near aquatic habitat will help to inform managers about the broader ecosystem implications and provide useful information to other agencies implementing buffelgrass remediation strategies near aquatic habitat.