High bacteria levels in county watersheds trigger search for cause 


Every year environmental scientists for Humboldt County take samples from the mouth of Strawberry Creek where freshwater meets saltwater on Clam Beach. For the last four years, the beach has made an environmental group’s “Beach Bummer list,” but this year it’s the most polluted beach on the annual report.

Karen Vu, data analyst for Santa Monica-based Heal The Bay, said her organization receives data from the whole West Coast and that its annual beach report covers all the data collected over the last year.

Vu said high amounts of bacteria could be potentially harmful to swimmers, who she cautioned to be mindful when going into riverways, because poor water quality can lead to infections and if consumed can cause intestinal problems.

In the last three years, Clam Beach dropped in ratings from an “A” rating in 2013 to an “F” rating this year.

Amanda Ruddy, an environmental health specialist for Humboldt County, said Clam Beach made the No. 1 spot on the list for a high amount of bacteria found in the watershed.

Ruddy said Humboldt County Public Health Laboratory is analyzing new samples which could lead to the source of the bacteria, but she said there are a number of reasons that could be the cause and narrowing it down is the next step.

Ruddy said the county takes samples from five different rivers every year between April and October, and that the reason why Humboldt County watersheds have recorded high amounts of bacteria is because of the heavy rainfall this last winter. She said high rainfall pushes everything down the watershed and ends up in the ocean. Ruddy said they are analyzing data from new bacteroides tests which will help lead them to the source.

“Clam Beach is still a beautiful beach and it’s still a safe beach,” Ruddy said.

Heal The Bay’s Vu said the group issued 214 grades this year from the season on California watersheds. According to the report there are three other beaches in Humboldt County monitored for bacteria: Trinidad State Beach, Moonstone and Mad River beaches, which all received “A” ratings for quality in the last year.

Jennifer Kalt, director of the Humboldt Baykeeper, said she is hoping the new results come in by the end of this year. She said if they are able to track the sources of the contamination they will be able to address the ongoing problems which face the North Coast watersheds. She said so many rivers are contaminated by many different causes and finding the source for each watershed is needed to change.

“The source of the bacteria is the key,” Kalt said. “The only way to know is when we get the results.”

Kalt said any watershed with high amounts of sewer lines, illegal camping or septic systems have high levels of bacteria. Kalt said she knows that human impact is a cause of the bacteria, but the hard part is tracking its orgin.

“Watersheds without human influence have very low levels,” Kalt said “It’s some kind of human influence, whether or not it’s livestock or septic tanks, we don’t know.”

Kalt said Clam Beach has gotten steadily worse over the years.

“Find the sources and figure out the solutions,” Kalt said. “Obviously that is something we can do about it.”

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