Water Quality Testing Program Detects Pollutants

 The beach at Neskowin, and Proposal Rock.\Photo by Kirt Edblom.
The beach at Neskowin, and Proposal Rock.\Photo by Kirt Edblom.

The Oregon Beach Monitoring Program, based at the Oregon Health Authority Public Health Division, is conducting its annual, regular evaluation of bacteria levels at beaches up and down the Oregon Coast, from Seaside to Brookings, throughout the summer.  All this summer, the program has issued reports of water quality problems, both in ocean waters meeting the shore, and in freshwater sources crossing beaches.  Warnings were issued this week (on September 20) of unhealthy bacterial levels at the Nye Beach turnaround in Newport (Lincoln County) and at Bastendorff Beach in Coos County. 

Earlier warnings for Nye and Agate beaches in Newport, D River Beach in Lincoln /city, Twin Rocks Beach in Rockaway  and at Cannon Beach have now been lifted.  In past weeks there have also been warnings of freshwater pollution at Tolovana State Park and Short Sand Beach in Clatsop County, Rockaway Beach in Tillamook County; and at Beverly Beach and Seal Rock in Lincoln County; among others. The numerous warnings issued this summer indicate widespread problems with polluted ocean waters and fresh water sources entering the ocean throughout Oregon's coastal region.

There have been reports and advisories all summer for a number of locations, some of which have triggered alarms several times.  Oregon clearly has a problem with pollution sources on the land side of the ocean-shore interface.

Ordinarily, each year's monitoring period extends through Labor Day weekend. However, this year the program has been extended through Sept. 28, clearly a good thing given the many findings of polluted beaches.  Monitoring for the 2018 season follows a three-week sampling schedule (listed below). Once sampling is completed for weeks 1 through 3, the schedule repeats until the sampling season ends.

Here's an outline of the 2018 Sampling Schedule and the beaches they are monitoring:

Week 1: Seaside, Cannon, Tolovana, Short Sand

Week 2: Rockaway, Twin Rocks, Neskowin, D River, Agate, Beverly, Nye, Seal Rock

Week 3: Nye, Seal Rock, Heceta, Bastendorff, Sunset Bay, Hubbard, Harris, Mill

Increased pathogen and fecal bacteria levels in ocean waters can come from both shore and inland sources such as stormwater runoff, sewer overflows, failing septic systems, and animal waste from livestock, pets and wildlife. When an advisory is in effect, visitors should avoid wading in nearby creeks, pools of water on the beach, or in discolored water, and stay clear of water runoff flowing into the ocean. Even if there is no advisory in effect, officials recommend avoiding swimming in the ocean within 48 hours after a rainstorm.

Although state officials advise against water contact, they continue to encourage other recreational activities (flying kites, picnicking, playing on the beach, walking, etc.)  because they pose no health risk even during an advisory. Neighboring beaches are not affected by this advisory.

Beaches are monitored for beach action values, or BAVs, the marine recreational water quality standard used to determine if bacteria levels are unsafe for water contact. When a single marine water sample has bacteria levels at or above the BAV, a health advisory is issued. Once a health advisory is issued, people are asked to avoid water contact until the health advisory is lifted.

Since 2003 Oregon Health Association has used a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant to monitor popular Oregon beaches and make timely reports to the public about elevated levels of fecal bacteria. State organizations participating in this program are the Oregon Health Authority, Department of Environmental Quality, and Parks and Recreation Department.

In 2014 the Environmental Protection Agency updated its national beach guidance and required performance criteria for grants. EPA studies found that recreating in water with bacteria levels below the previous BAV of 158 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters of water (cfu/100mL) poses a health risk. EPA now requires states that receive funding for beach monitoring to adopt a new BAV that is more protective of the public’s health. The updated guidance provides safer standards for recreational waters across the U.S. and will help focus resources on the highest priority beaches. 

Oregon Beach Monitoring Program will apply a BAV of 130 cfu/100mL for the 2018 monitoring season. “We are confident the new BAV strikes the right balance of health protection based on how Oregonians and visitors use our beaches,” said Curtis Cude, manager of the Public Health Division’s environmental public health surveillance program, which administers the OBMP.

Beach advisories will be publicized in OHA news releases throughout the 2018 season and will be posted at http://www.healthoregon.org/beach

To provide comprehensive beach monitoring data during peak holiday weekends, OBMP will perform a full coast (north, mid and south) sampling run the week before Memorial Day (5/21 – 5/25), Independence Day (6/25 – 6/29) and Labor Day (8/27 – 8/31). Following these full coast sampling events, OBMP will resume the normal sampling schedule.  Please see OBMP’s website (www.healthoregon.org/beach) for additional information on Beach Water QualityCurrent Beach Conditions and Beaches We Monitor