Blue Water Task Force, Partnerships, Source Identification, Water Quality
September 08 2008

Surfrider in Newport, Oregon Partners with City to Track Sources of Pollution

by Mara Dias

Answers sought for Nye Beach water quality problems: City partners with Surfrider Foundation to find solution
Posted on on Jan 18, 2008 by Steve Card of the News-Times

On an all-too-frequent basis, health advisories have been posted on Newport's Nye Beach due to higher-than-normal levels of bacteria in the ocean waters at that location. To determine why the bacteria levels are consistently high, and to find a solution to the problem, city officials have teamed up with the Surfrider Foundation, a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to the protection and enhancement of oceans and beaches.

Charlie Plybon, Oregon field coordinator for Surfrider, said they sample water quality at locations up and down the coast, and they were regularly getting high bacteria readings at Nye Creek in Newport. Eventually, the Oregon Department of Humans Services, too, began taking water samples at Nye Beach as part of its beach monitoring program, and this has led to the frequent health advisories being issued for that area.

Realizing this is a problem that needs to be dealt with, the city has struggled to determine the cause. The fact that there is a sewer pump station nearby, and that the city discharges treated wastewater offshore from Nye Beach, led to speculation by some members of the public the city was fouling its own beach. But both Surfrider and the city have done extensive water testing in the area, leading them to conclude the source of contamination is not from the sanitary sewer system or the outfall from the treatment plant. In fact, when water samples were taken upstream from the sewer pump station, bacteria levels remained high.

“I think one of the biggest achievements we've made with the City of Newport, from a Surfrider standpoint, was we both recognized there's an issue with the water coming out of the pipe at Nye Creek (at the seawall),” Plybon said. “The bacteria levels we were measuring were not coming from the wastewater treatment plant and the outfall of that. It was in the storm water line.”

How that pollution is entering the storm drainage system is not yet known, but Plybon said there are two possible sources. Heavy rains can wash animal waste - both wild and domestic - into the storm sewer, which contributes to high bacterial levels. The other source would be from human waste. “At the levels that Surfrider is finding, we're not comfortable attributing all of this to background bacteria levels (from animal waste) in storm water,” he said.

To track down the source of the pollution, the city is attempting to isolate areas of high bacterial levels through a stepped-up water-testing program. In addition to testing at the seawall, “we are also testing Nye Creek and its tributary arms, and we're going up into the storm drain systems ... trying to chase this problem down,” said City Engineer Lee Ritzman. Ritzman said he agrees with Plybon's assessment that not all of the bacteria is being generated by animal waste. If it were, then the bacteria level would be high after a heavy rain and would eventually drop back off. But that is not the case. “We think we're finding something that is consistently high,” he said.

Ritzman said there is a possibility that somewhere within the Nye Beach drainage basin, there could be household sewage going directly into the storm drain. Back in the 1970s, the city had one sewer system to collect both storm water and household sewage. When these were separated into two systems, a household could have been missed, “or somebody has a septic system that's hooked into the storm drain.” He added it would only take one residence dumping sewage into the storm drain to get the elevated bacteria count being seen in the water samples.

Once the city isolates a “hot” zone, where bacteria levels in storm water are high, then they can try to find the specific source of the problem. “Charlie's group has offered to provide some help when it becomes appropriate, where we would go in and do dye testing of sewer systems,” said Ritzman. “We can open a manhole (in the sanitary sewer) flush some florescent dye down the toilet, and then make sure that it shows up in the manhole.” If they don't see the dye, then they'll do further investigation to see if that particular residence is a source of the problem. “It's like trying to prove a negative, in some cases,” said Ritzman. “We find the positives and eliminate them.”

Another option being considered by the city is DNA testing on the water samples collected. A basic test can determine whether or not there is human waste present. But the city may want to take it a step further, Ritzman said. More extensive DNA testing can tell them what percentage of the bacteria is coming from human or animal waste. It can also determine what type of bird or animal waste it is - such as seagull, raccoon or dog. “We can't draw a lot of conclusions,” he said, “but we would hope that it would give us a general idea.” Determining what type of waste is contributing to the problem will help determine a remedy, he said.

Even if it does turn out that animal waste is not the primary cause of the high bacteria levels, Plybon would like to see that issue addressed as a long-term goal. “There's a lot of wildlife and domestic animals (in this area). They may not be the ‘hot' source that's creating this really, really high bacteria, but they are a contributor. And every little accumulating piece basically exacerbates the problem.” He would like to see some long-term planning with a goal toward cleaner storm water. “There's things that we can implement now that will help us long term,” he said. “You could make it city code for everybody to pick up their pet waste. They do that in Corvallis and in Portland.”

Firestone said while there isn't an ordinance pertaining to that yet, “it's coming up for a city council work session. The intent is to ask the council to adopt a dog waste ordinance.”

O'Neal believes that often people simply don't make the connection between pet waste and water quality.

There is yet another issue that results in the contamination of Nye Beach, and that is when the city experiences a sewer spill at its pump station. That happens occasionally, and when it does, the city posts an advisory at the beach. Plybon said it is unfortunate when those incidents occur, but people should not try to link it to the other water quality problems because they are two separate issues. “Unfortunately there are other events (sewer spills). They do happen, and those things should be treated separately and not become part of this problem.”

As far as the on-going water-quality problem, Plybon said, “I feel optimistic they're going to find this (source of contamination), that we're going to solve this issue.”

City Manager Allen O'Neal said the problem has been very frustrating for the city. “There are some people who have made comments in public ... almost with the suggestion that we as staff think it's OK, or that we are perpetrating it.

“There's obviously a lot of frustration over this,” continued O'Neal. “We, too, are frustrated, but we are approaching this in a methodical and a scientific way, and our partnership with Surfrider improves our opportunity for determining the cause.”

Plybon said the ultimate goal of both the city and Surfrider “is we don't want these advisories in Nye Beach anymore. From a health perspective, it's bad. From a business perspective, it's bad.”

Newport isn't alone in its struggle to overcome this type of problem, added Plybon. “From a coastal perspective, up and down the state of Oregon, there's a lot of areas that are challenged in this way. To Newport's credit, I don't know of any other municipality along the coast that is testing in this fashion. I think the city deserves some credit for that.”

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