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“Forever chemicals” in Swan Lake remain unconfirmed but have officials concerned 


Officials are awaiting test results from water samples taken at Swan Lake. The samples will determine the level of concern over the amount of PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” found in the lake.

Washoe County, the City of Reno and Truckee Meadows Water Authority officials held a press conference in April. They said they are each concerned with the abnormally high level of the chemicals reported by a University of Nevada, Reno graduate student at the Nevada Water Environment Association’s conference in late March.

City of Reno employees attended the conference and passed on the information. After learning of the graduate student’s test sample, officials conducted more tests from wells, soil and surface water to determine the extent of the contamination.

Test results have not yet been received by local governments, but they could be back as early as this week.

PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been used for decades and are found in all kinds of products like nonstick pans and cosmetics. They are known as “forever chemicals” because they are slow to break down in the environment. 

PFAS are commonly found in humans.

Health risks unknown

The health effects of PFAS have not yet been confirmed, but the chemicals are suspected to have adverse impacts. Study outcomes vary.

“Testing for them is improving so we’re able to now understand that the prevalence of these PFAS compounds are greater than what we first thought,” Dwayne Smith, engineer for Washoe County, said last month when local agencies gathered to discuss Swan Lake. “We don’t know exactly about the health risks associated with PFAS compounds but we are very concerned, so we want to share our information with you.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website indicates research involving humans suggests that high levels of certain PFAS may lead to increased kidney or testicular cancer, changes in liver enzymes and increased cholesterol, among a number of possible health effects.

That uncertainty, however, still has officials concerned. 

Contamination unconfirmed

The sample by the graduate student was taken in 2021 and found an abnormally high level of PFAS at Swan Lake.

But that single sample, at that point in time, has not been confirmed, and Swan Lake water levels were much lower at that time than now.

Trace levels of PFAS have become common in water systems.

“However, trace levels do not account for the amount found in the grad student’s testing for PFAS at Swan Lake in 2021,” said Washoe County spokesperson Bethany Drysdale. “We will not know more until we have the recent, official test results.”

Irrigation changed at American Flat

The PFAS detection meant irrigation of the American Flat project is done with Truckee Meadows Water Authority water, as opposed to Swan Lake water, which has treated effluent from the Reno-Stead Water Reclamation Facility.

Using TMWA water on those fields is something the City of Reno has been doing when Swan Lake water levels are low.

“We did not want to pump the water out of the lake knowing [about the PFAS levels], so we’re using what we’ve done the last couple of years when we got later in the season and the lake was too low to pump from,” said John Flansberg with the City of Reno.

“The source water going up to the farm right now is from TMWA wells,” he added. “We are paying for the water … just like we have done in 2021 and 2022 when we got into June [and] July.” 

Flansberg said the cost for using the TMWA water could be about $25,000 this year, which is about what it cost for the past two years combined. 

Swan Lake capacity a concern

PFAS contamination could, however, have an impact on what happens if Swan Lake fills up from snowpack runoff next year.

Pumping water from Swan Lake to American Flat reduces Swan Lake’s level, and without that pumping – because of PFAS contamination – the lake’s water level will be determined by evaporation rather than both evaporation and pumping.

“Evaporation does a great job,” Flansberg said. “We lose a pretty high amount of volume from evaporation.”

A normal water year, he added, may not present challenges.

“But if we have an above-average year, then we could get lake levels that rise higher than that,” Flansberg said.

He said the PFAS detection has not altered any other operations at the reclamation facility.

Bob Conrad
Bob Conradhttp://thisisreno.com
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011. He is also a part time instructor at UNR.