Summer means it’s time to begin tracking beaches for contamination
By NANCY MCCARTHY
The Daily Astorian
CANNON BEACH - Two health advisories issued for beaches in or near Cannon Beach this summer signal that the beach-monitoring season is under way.
This year, 25 of the state's 94 beaches are being monitored weekly, every two weeks or monthly for enterococcus, bacteria that is present in animal and human waste. It also indicates the presence of other bacteria.
Bacteria can enter the ocean, creeks, rivers and outflows from a variety of sources, including stormwater runoff, animal and seabird waste, failing septic systems, spills from sewage treatment plants or discharges from boats.
Of the 25 beaches slated for routine monitoring, 11 are in Clatsop and Tillamook counties.
While most of the beaches usually don't show high enough counts of bacteria to rate an advisory, the Ecola Court outflow pipe in midtown Cannon Beach garnered 12 advisories after 26 tests last year.
This year, so far, the percentage of good tests over bad is better: It failed only once - during April - in nine tests.
"Over the past few months, we've seen water quality at Ecola Court outfall improve," said Charlie Plybon, Oregon Field Manager for Surfrider Foundation. The foundation monitors water quality on beaches and has been critical of Cannon Beach's efforts to address the outfall area. Recently, however, the city and the foundation began working together to develop solutions.
But, Plybon added, "The area is still of concern until we can demonstrate this 'improved' water quality over time, and beachgoers are safe from advisories." Advisories are issued when more than 158 organisms of bacteria per 100 milliliters of water are found in the samples. The bacteria can cause gastroenteritis, skin rashes, upper respiratory infections and other illnesses.
State health officials warn people to avoid wading in creeks that have advisories and to stay clear of water runoff flowing into the ocean.
On April 5, the monitor for the state's testing system found 579 organisms at the outfall site. Two subsequent tests - on April 19 and May 3 - indicated the presence of organisms was significantly reduced, and state officials lifted the advisory.
The Hug Point advisory, issued June 29, was the first in nearly three years, when an advisory was posted for the south end of the cove on July 30, 2007. The advisory was lifted a week later.
Tolovana State Park hadn't been tested since Oct. 29, 2007, and at that time no organisms were detected. This year, however, an advisory was issued June 2 and lifted on June 9. A subsequent test on June 14 could not detect bacteria.
"Tolovana Park has been a relatively clean area over the years and it fell off the radar of the state's monitoring program for this reason," Plybon said.
The state took a sample from the area following a request from Surfrider, he said.
"In all honesty, that doesn't really tell us much other than we need to test more," Plybon added.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has required 35 coastal and Great Lakes states and territories to monitor beaches since 2000. But because the $230,000 EPA grant isn't enough to cover all of Oregon's 94 recreational beaches, monitoring is done on the top 25 that have a high use, a history of pollution or are near potential pollution sources, said Jennifer Ketterman, Oregon beach program coordinator.
The state has learned that each beach has its own character and personality, Ketterman said. "What we find on the South Coast is different than what we find on the North Coast," she said.
Where the monitor collects the water sample depends on the size of the beach and whether one particular area has a history of a high bacteria count, Ketterman said. The Ecola Court outfall, for instance, has a history of higher-than-normal bacteria counts, so samples are taken at the pipe as water flows out and in the stream as it empties into the ocean. Monitors are particularly concerned about pipes that flow on the beach "because people are getting more water contact," she said.
Although the state receives funds to test the water, it doesn't have the money to investigate the source of bacteria when the tests fail.
"There are a variety of sources near the shore or inland," Ketterman said. "They could come from animals, seabirds, diapers, agricultural products, sewage treatment plants, septic tanks, boat disposals. It's a pretty complex process."
The problem is even more complex, she added, because the presence of bacteria can fluctuate wildly. "You can collect data one minute and it will be different the next minute," Ketterman said. That has been a frustration experienced by Mark See, Cannon Beach public works director. Because it takes time to get a test result the city isn't notified until the next day that a problem exists, he said. "We're getting a warning today about the tests yesterday.... We need real-time testing for a real-time warning." Cannon Beach is tested every Monday during the summer. If the test fails, more samples are taken on Wednesday and confirmed on Thursday. The public is notified on Friday.
"There's a real flaw in the testing program," See said.
Eventually, he said, "real-time" testing will be available so city officials and the public will know instantly that bacterium is in the water.
Recent DNA tests performed by the city indicate gulls are the main polluters to the streams on the beach, See said. He intends to send samples to an Oregon State University lab to confirm the source whenever Cannon Beach tests high. This will rule out other sources, such as a misconnected sewer line or illegal dumping.
See also hopes that, eventually, the city and Surfrider can take over testing Cannon Beach's water from the state so money will be freed up to test other coastal sites.
"My vision is that we want the Department of Human Services to do lots of testing for everyone if we agree to do our own testing," See said. The city's testing would be checked against Surfrider's tests for accuracy.
But, while the city can continue to monitor the water and take steps to remedy some pollution source, the public needs to get involved, too, See said.
The city's public works committee is drafting educational pamphlets, which will be distributed to local hotels and businesses. The pamphlets will discuss why water is tested, the risks of contacting untreated water and other facts involving water tests.
"When you do a lot of test sites in one place like Cannon Beach and one pops up bad and an advisory is issued, it sounds like there's an advisory for all of Cannon Beach," See said. "It affects business. The chamber of commerce has gotten involved, so we have a balance of all concerned parties."
The public works committee may also ask the City Council to prohibit people from feeding birds and other wild animals. The animals become used to the feeding and stay close to public areas, See said. Instead, they should be discouraged from roosting on roofs.
"You always see gulls on the roof tops and parking lots of the Surfsand, the Wayfarer and the American Legion building," he said. When they leave their waste on the roofs or asphalt and a summer rain occurs, "there's just enough rain to put a slurry of seagull poop into the drainage system."
Those buildings are also close to the stream that runs from the Ecola Court outfall, across the beach and to the ocean.
Other solutions may be found as well. Roof drains may be disconnected from the city's drainage system and put into "drainage swales" where the water is filtered through natural vegetation before being directed into the city's drainage pipes, See said. But drainage swales take up space, which is scarce in developed areas near the beach.
But See will experiment with another "pre-treatment" method when the restrooms on Second and Spruce streets are reconstructed later this year. He plans to build a "rain garden" that, much like the drainage swale, will act to filter out pollution from the building's roof before it goes into the city's system.
Although the contamination can be reduced, it will never be eliminated, See said.
"The truth is, there's fresh water everywhere. And there's still some chance that bacteria will get into that fresh water."