Bacteria remains at Ecola outflow
Surfrider Foundation says counts are high enough in storm water to trigger a state health advisory
By NANCY MCCARTHY
The Daily Astorian
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
CANNON BEACH - Bacteria levels at the Ecola Court Outfall in Cannon Beach have remained high in tests conducted during the past three months.
Two state water quality tests in November, as well as tests in December and January performed for the Surfrider Foundation, indicated the bacteria count in the storm water outfall was high enough to trigger a state health advisory.
The state Human Services Division issues a health advisory when water samples contain more than 158 organisms per 100 milliliters. Tests performed by the Oregon Beach Monitoring Program for the state on Nov. 16 showed there were 1,935 organisms in the stream that leads from the Ecola outfall pipe into the ocean.
Another state test Nov. 19 indicated there were 197 organisms.
On Dec. 20, tests performed by Astoria High School students for a lab monitored by the Surfrider Foundation showed the count at 171, and a test Jan. 4 indicated 432 organisms.
Although high counts of organisms can be blamed on runoff of street pollutants accumulated during the dry season, the readings continued to be high even after heavy rains had already washed the streets, said Charlie Plybon, Oregon field coordinator for Surfrider Foundation.
Surfrider Foundation is a nonprofit organization that monitors Oregon's water quality along the coast.
Between March and September last year, when Cannon Beach sees the most visitors, 10 out of 20 water quality tests failed to meet state standards. Between Oct. 12 and Nov. 2, bacteria counts met state limits, ranging between 10 and 108 organisms per 100 milliliters.
Although the tests are for storm water and not drinking water, they concern members of the Surfrider Foundation because the outfall is a popular play area for children during the summer.
In addition, those accessing the beach from Gower Street in Midtown must cross the stream if they want to walk to Haystack Rock.
Surfrider has asked the city to share data it has collected and to establish a committee specifically to look at the problem. The City Council has asked the city's public works committee to work on it, said Mark See, public works director. The committee is beginning to educate itself about the problem, he said.
Meanwhile, Plybon said, "We're getting a little frustrated with the city."
The city hasn't shared the DNA results collected from samples of animals and birds found in the area and from DNA found in the outfall storm water over a year ago.
The organization is also concerned that the only information given to the public about the periodic contamination is a sign over the tide gate that says the water is untreated. Plybon said he would like to see a sign that gives clearer warnings.
"Some people feel we should take a harder line with the city," Plybon said. "But we need a common strategy. I think the will of the city to do something is there. I don't know if the resources are there.
"We need the city to tell us what they need, and we can provide the experts," he added. If Surfrider doesn't see improved bacteria counts, the organization probably wouldn't seek legal action against the city, Plybon said. But it could ask the state to require Cannon Beach to have a storm water discharge permit. Because the city has a population of less than 4,000, it isn't legally required to apply for a state permit, but Plybon believes a case could be made for the permit if a health threat exists.
A permit would require the city to reduce the contaminants or face a fine every time they exceed the limit, Plybon said.
"I would rather use collaboration to get there, but that's the stick we could use."
But, See said, "dozens of factors" affect the outflow, which begins as an underground stream in the hills behind Cannon Beach and runs through Midtown before it flows out of the pipe behind a parking lot and onto the beach.
The city already conducts education programs that teach property owners how to discard animal and other wastes from their yards. Plastic bags also are provided at stations along the beach for dog waste.
"There never have been any definitive answers," about how pollutants are entering the outflow stream, See said. "Every fresh water source has this potential."
Tests only describe what was in the water "yesterday," but no one knows what is in the water "today," he added.
"We need technology to provide 'real-time' data, and that could happen not far into the future. They're working on something," See said.
It wouldn't be practical to eliminate the outflow because it prevents sand from building up and blocking the beach access and overflowing the parking lots of surrounding restaurants and hotels. "We could spend tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars fixing it," See said. "Because it's a complicated formula, there's not a simple answer."
Because the city doesn't have a combined storm and sewer system, there is little chance that storm drains would have been inadvertently connected to the sewer drains, See said. However, he admitted, that has happened a few times.
"We watch for that all the time; we have an extensive mapping system" showing the drainage systems.
Eventually, though, if the bacteria counts remain high, the city may have to do some "smoke" testing that will determine if local buildings are correctly connected to the sewer system.
"To satisfy some people, we may have to spend some money and do something," See said.
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