Preliminary tests raise questions about coastal water quality

Most Oregon residents head to the beach with the assumption that the state's coast is pristine, or at least clean. But just how pure is the beach water?

Nobody really knows. As of last month, Oregon was the only coastal state in the nation that didn't monitor its ocean waters regularly for pollution.

That will change this summer, as the state begins testing the ocean regularly for E. coli and enterococci, two bacteria associated with fecal matter from people and wildlife.

Officials emphasize that there aren't any great pollution dangers that led to the new testing program. But preliminary samples collected by the Department of Environmental Quality last summer have raised some red flags. So have test results and anecdotal evidence from the Oregon chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, which looks out for water quality on behalf of surfers, kayakers and other ocean users.

'It's not a reason not to come to the coast and enjoy it, because Oregon probably has some of the best water quality in the country,' said David Revell, Oregon field coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation. 'But we don't know what's out there, and what we have found is that there are times when Oregon water is polluted.'

The state's preliminary tests consisted of more than 100 samples collected last summer. They showed mostly low levels of bacteria, with a few spikes of higher levels. About 10 percent of the beaches that were tested showed high-threat levels, health department officials said.

Samples that exceeded the state's action levels for bacteria were taken at Cannon Beach at the mouth of Ecola Creek and at Nelscott Beach and Road's End Beach, two popular spots near Lincoln City.

Greg Pettit, manager of the state's DEQ Water Assessment Section, explained that the problem isn't Pacific Ocean water. Instead, he said, it is the runoff from sewage treatment plants, large animal farms and urban storm water systems that enter area streams and rivers and then empty into the ocean.

Michael Holcomb, an environmental toxicologist with the state's health department, said high bacteria levels could give water users rashes, ear infections or nausea Ñ but no long-term health problems.

The Surfrider Foundation's Revell said Oregon surfers and kayakers frequently experience rashes and other illnesses that they believe come from tainted water. He said the group's volunteer testing has shown high pollution levels at three beaches in Newport and two near Coos Bay.

The new state testing program is funded through a $230,000 grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. It will focus on heavily used beaches where the potential for pollution is relatively high.

State scientists will monitor 53 beaches periodically. Three locations Ñ Cannon Beach, Seaside Beach and Oswald West State Park just north of Manzanita Ñ have been identified as significant enough risks to be tested weekly.

When tests show high levels of bacteria, officials will post signs on the beach warning people to stay out of the water.

'Undoubtedly, we will find some hot spots with bacteria problems,' the DEQ's Pettit said. 'But I think it's important to put that in perspective with the whole coast, which is relatively clean.'

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