Beach Water Quality Monitoring Reveals Polluted Coastal Waters

Frolicking in ocean waters--check to make sure they aren't polluted.\Photo by Sonja Peterson.

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.  The 2019 program is scheduled to run through Aug. 30.

The OBMP monitors the waters along Oregon's coastline for the presence of fecal bacteria, and reports elevated levels to the public.  Marine waters are tested for enterococcus, which is an indicator of the presence of other bacteria. Enterococcus is present in human and animal waste and can enter marine waters from a variety of sources such as streams and creeks, storm water runoff, animal and seabird waste, failing septic systems, sewage treatment plant spills, or boating waste.

Alerts are issued for polluted ocean waters alongside beaches.  The program also reports on freshwater sources just inland from beaches, but alerts are not issued for these.  It is advisable to be wary, however, because these polluted sources are generally crossing the beach and could cause problems for those crossing streams or in the ocean near the point where these streams meet ocean waters.  For instance, a recent report for south coast beaches indicated that none were at critical levels of bacteria.  However, Miner Creek, just upstream from popular Bastendorff Beach in Coos County, had extremley high bacteria levels. 

There have been reports and advisories all summer for a number of locations, some of which have triggered alarms more than once--Seal Rock beach has been particularly affected..  Oregon clearly has a problem with pollution sources on the land side of the ocean-shore interface.  Increased pathogen and fecal bacterial levels can come from both sources on the shore and inland sources such as stormwater runoff, sewer overflows, failing septic system, and animal waste from livestock, pets, and wildlife. 

When an advisory is in effect, beachgoers should avoid wading in creeks crossing the beach or pools of water, and stay clear of water flowing into the ocean.  Even if there is no advisory in effect, the beach monitoring program recommends against swimming within 48 hours after a rainstorm.

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.

Since 2003, the 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 are posted at http://www.healthoregon.org/beach

See OBMP’s website (www.healthoregon.org/beach) for additional information on Beach Water QualityCurrent Beach Conditions and Beaches We Monitor