• Sediment;
  • Toxicity identification evaluation;
  • Hyalella azteca;
  • Pyrethroid;
  • Carboxylesterase


The lower Santa Maria River watershed provides important aquatic habitat on the central California coast and is influenced heavily by agricultural runoff. As part of a recently completed water quality assessment, we conducted a series of water column and sediment toxicity tests throughout this watershed. Sediment from Orcutt Creek, a tributary that drains agricultural land, consistently was toxic to the amphipod Hyalella azteca, which is a resident genus in this river. Toxicity identification evaluations (TIEs) were conducted to determine cause(s) of toxicity. We observed no toxicity in sediment interstitial water even though concentrations of chlorpyrifos exceeded published aqueous toxicity thresholds for H. azteca. In contrast to interstitial water, bulk sediment was toxic to H. azteca. In bulk-phase sediment TIEs, the addition of 20% (by volume) coconut charcoal increased survival by 41%, implicating organic chemical(s). Addition of 5% (by volume) of the carbonaceous resin Ambersorb 563® increased survival by 88%, again suggesting toxicity due to organic chemicals. Toxicity was confirmed by isolating Ambersorb from the sediment, eluting the resin with methanol, and observing significant toxicity in control water spiked with the methanol eluate. A carboxylesterase enzyme that hydrolyzes synthetic pyrethroids was added to overlying water, and this significantly reduced toxicity to amphipods. Although the pesticides chlorpyrifos, DDT, permethrin, esfenvalerate, and fenvalerate were detected in this sediment, and their concentrations were below published toxicity thresholds for H. azteca, additivity or synergism may have occurred. The weight-of-evidence suggests toxicity of this sediment was caused by an organic contaminant, most likely a synthetic pyrethroid.