Beyond Graphs and Tables: Effective Communication of Water Quality Results
Finding a needle in the haystack
Contamination at Ecola Court Outfall raises concerns in Cannon Beach
By NANCY MCCARTHY
The Daily Astorian
Situated between the restaurant and Ecola Inn, the path follows a stream that emerges from the bank and flows to the ocean.
Because the slow-moving stream is shallow in the summer, children often play in the middle of it, building sand dams or shoveling sand into plastic buckets.
But water quality tests in that stream, also known as the "Ecola Court Outfall," show that bacteria thrive there. This year, between March and September, when Cannon Beach sees its greatest number of tourists, 10 out of the 20 water quality tests performed by the state Department of Human Services failed to meet safety standards. The bacteria count in one of those tests was 10 times higher than the standard needed to establish a health advisory warning.
Another four tests indicated that the bacteria count was high but not enough to issue a health advisory.
The problem isn't new, said Charlie Plybon, Oregon field coordinator for Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit organization that monitors water quality along Oregon's coast.
For the past two years, 27 out of 63 tests have failed, and five of those had 10 times the number of bacteria allowed before a warning is triggered.
The state issues a health advisory when the water sample contains more than 158 organisms per 100 milliliters. The highest number detected was on Aug. 11, 2008, when the state found 2,481 organisms per 100 milliliters.
"There's a sign posted that warns folks that the water is not treated, but it doesn't warn folks when the water is contaminated," Plybon told the Cannon Beach City Council at a recent meeting.
Plybon asked the council to form a task force to look into the source of the bacteria. He also wants the city to improve its notification procedure.
Although he doesn't have documented proof of health problems arising from the outfall, Plybon said a mother had told him that her two children, who had been playing in the water all weekend, came down with bladder infections.
"There have been a number of staph infections of people who had contact with the water," Plybon added. "It's difficult to say where they were coming from, but there's a pretty darn good chance that they may have come from the water."
Plybon said this week that he received numerous calls and e-mails in September from people who were concerned about the daily state health advisories they were seeing on the Oregon Department of Human Services Web site. The human services department is in charge of monitoring water for Oregon.
"In September I was bombarded by business owners, folks who visit part time and local residents," Plybon said. "They felt the city was not doing all it could be doing."
Although Cannon Beach attracts thousands of tourists daily during the summer, it is not subject to state penalties for water contamination because its permanent population is less than 10,000, Plybon said.
The water draining into the outfall has no connection to the city's drinking water system, which is treated in a wastewater treatment plant east of Spruce Street.
Surfrider wants to help the city conduct more tests on its stormwater lines to find the contamination source. Such tests might include a "smoke" examination that would determine if storm lines were accidentally connected to sewer lines. In that test, smoke "bombs" are discharged into a storm drain line, and if residents see smoke coming from their roof vents, they know they have been connected to a sewer line instead of the storm drainage line.
Plybon conducted a similar test in Newport after state tests there revealed a high degree of contamination. There, they found 10 homes - all built within the past 10 years - had the improper connections.
In Brookings, "we accidentally stumbled upon a school that had been hooked up wrong for 30 years," Plybon said.
But city Public Works Director Mark See said Cannon Beach did smoke tests 10 years ago to determine if some storm drain lines were mistakenly connected to sewer lines, and only one house was found to have a misconnection.
"I'm perfectly willing to do additional testing," See said. "A new connection can happen. But we have looked for the telltale signs and we haven't found anything."
One public works employee even crawled into a drain pipe as far as he could go, looking for toilet tissue that might have gotten caught inside. This would indicate sewage had flowed through the pipe. He found nothing.
The city has made a "concerted effort" to separate the storm system from the sanitary system, See said. However, during periods of heavy rain, the systems may overflow, he noted.
The city also has worked with Oregon State University to conduct DNA tests. Employees have tracked down birds, elk, raccoons and even a bobcat to get fecal samples so the OSU researcher could compare them to the DNA in the bacteria from water samples in the outflow.
"Overwhelmingly, there's a very large contribution from birds," See said. "They roost on roofs of buildings and their waste runs down the roof to the drains and into the drainage system," he said.
From there, it enters the stream and flows through the outfall pipe and onto the beach.
"There could be thousands of sources," See added. "It doesn't make any difference what the critter is. In the warmer months, when the stream is slow, bacteria can grow faster." When tests conducted by the state showed health violations for eight consecutive weeks between Aug. 4, 2008 and Sept. 29, 2008, and human feces was found in some of those tests, See said he had his public works employees collected their own water samples along the stream.
See said the creek runs through midtown, from east of U.S. Highway 101, down Sunset Boulevard, along Spruce Street to Dawes Street. It goes underground around Evergreen Street and flows under Gower Street until it emerges from the bank behind the Wayfarer Restaurant.
While taking water samples along the stream's route, the crews discovered that, as the creek moved west, it flowed into a drainage basin near a garbage collection area at an apartment complex. Garbage cans containing diapers had fallen over, and the diapers were near the water. See believes that was the source for the fecal matter at that time.
Following the incident, contaminants in the outfall were reduced until last March, according to the state's tests.
Plybon agreed that testing the DNA in water samples shows what may be in the water, but "they don't quantify what's there."
"You may have a whole suite of animals, but that doesn't tell what's in the majority," he said.
Astoria resident Tom Oxwang, who, with his wife, Gretel, has "adopted" a mile-long stretch of beach to monitor for Oregon Coast Watch, regularly walks past the outfall on his patrol.
"I see children playing in the creek, digging channels in it. It's difficult to see children there, especially without a sign and knowing the reports that we're seeing," he said.
City councilors agreed that more effort needs to be made to reduce the hazard.
"It's important that we get a handle on this, whether it's bird DNA or dirty diapers," said Councilor Melissa Cadwallader. "It's not going to be a quick fix, but it's going to be an important fix."
There are things the city and local residents can do, Plybon said: They could build bioswales along parking lots or in yards to capture pollutants before they go into the drainage system; they could educate themselves and visitors about proper ways to dispose of diapers and animal waste; and they could disconnect their stormwater drains.
"The best solution is preventing these things from happening," Plybon added.
See said a filter box could be installed to remove the pollutants as the outfall flows from the tidegate behind the Wayfarer Restaurant, but that would cost $1 million and another $10,000 a year to maintain.
By October and November, when the rains come, the stream runs quicker, and pollutants that accumulated in the summer are flushed out. Past tests show the bacteria count is reduced to 10 to 50 organisms per 100 milliliters, and sometimes no bacteria is detected.
Both Plybon and See said they plan to work together on writing grants that will pay for ways to control the contaminants entering the stream.
"I like to think that there's always a fix for everything," See said. "Will it be a place that never tests over the allowed bacterial count? No. There are too many variables."