July 05 2006

Mayor’s Water Quality Workgroup: Newport, OR

by Surfrider Foundation

In early 2006, Surfrider members in Newport, Oregon began meeting monthly with the city council to jointly identify solutions to water quality problems. Initiated in response to testing conducted by Surfrider volunteers and the Oregon Coast Aquarium that indicated high bacterial counts at local beaches, the “Mayor’s Workgroup on Water Quality” has demonstrated that citizen involvement can be a powerful approach to local problem solving.

(the science of poo)

The workgroup was established by Newport Mayor Bill Bain after Surfrider member Melinda McComb presented concerns at a City Council meeting about contaminated water off Nye Beach. Because most of the state’s water quality monitoring in Newport is conducted during the summer, most members of the public were not aware of high bacterial levels documented at local beaches during the winter months.

Fortunately, Newport’s Blue Water Task Force was there to fill in the gaps. Started in 2004 by Charlie Plybon, Education Director at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, and Markus Mead, Surfrider Field Coordinator, the program has rapidly expanded to provide weekly water quality data for 6 locations in Newport. Involving over 30 volunteer samplers as well as students from the aquarium’s Youth Education Program, the Blue Water Task Force was responsible for informing the community about these local water quality problems, and convincing Newport’s elected officials that a citizen-based approach was needed to identify solutions.

During the Water Quality Workgroup’s second meeting, members toured the Newport Wastewater Treatment Plant with City Engineer Lee Ritzman. In addition to examining the facility and treatment procedure, the group reviewed the city’s wastewater master plan document. The ensuing conversation focused on the challenges of wastewater management in a coastal city, and the critical need for Newport to upgrade its aging infrastructure of pipes and pump stations. By the end of the discussion, city officials and Surfrider volunteers had pledged to work together to help build the necessary political will to finance these needed (and expensive) infrastructure improvements.

(reviewing the Master Plan with Lee Ritzman, City Engineer)

The workgroup next turned its attention to improving beach signage for water quality advisories. Because official advisories may only be triggered by state agency data (primarily collected during the summer) workgroup members stressed the need for the city to better communicate identified health risks during the winter months. In response, city council member Larry Henson negotiated an agreement with the state for Newport to custom-create additional panels for beach signs to advise ocean users of health risks identified through city testing. As part of this arrangement, the city also agreed to install beach advisory signs at two previously unmarked shoreline access points.

More recently, the workgroup has focused on some of the root causes of local water quality pollution, and possible alternatives for city action. Surfrider members have presented information on topics such as best available technologies and municipal grant opportunities for infrastructure improvements. The workgroup has also served as an important forum for discussing the terms of the proposed permit renewal for the local Georgia Pacific pulp and paper mill.

Additionally, the Newport Chapter is currently designing a monitoring project for Nye Creek to identify sources of bacterial pollution off Nye Beach. Since initial documentation of water quality problems at Nye, expanded Surfrider monitoring has indicated that much of this pollution likely originates from the watershed, rather than the city’s sewage outfall. The identification of these sources will lay the groundwork for the city implementation of real and lasting solutions.

Newport Chapter volunteers are also working with the city to develop a public education campaign on reducing non-point source pollution. In the coming months, the city plans to add information to its website, and the water bill will include a 1 page fact sheet on simple lifestyle changes that can help protect local water quality.

Finally, Surfrider volunteers have been organizing fundraising events to support the Oregon Coast Aquarium’s efforts to obtain “EPA certification” for its lab. This certification will allow data collected through the Surfrider/aquarium partnership to be fully recognized by the state as part of Oregon’s Beach Monitoring Program.

The early successes of the Mayor’s Workgroup are a testament to the power of citizen involvement and the value of Blue Water Task Force. The Newport example demonstrates how Surfrider’s volunteer water testing program can provide significant value to a community through scientific monitoring, public education, and policy advancement.

In the words of City Council member Larry Henson to the workgroup, “These are exciting times, your continued work as a committee on water issues is critical to our community. Working together we have began a journey to build a sustainable future for Newport’s citizens, and visitors.”