A health advisory was issued on Tuesday, June 18, in Cannon Beach after fecal bacteria was discovered. The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) issued a public health advisory for higher-than-normal levels of bacteria in ocean waters at Cannon Beach.
The OHA said water samples indicate raised levels of fecal bacteria, which can cause diarrhea, stomach cramps, skin rashes, upper respiratory infections and other illnesses. People were instructed to avoid direct contact with the water until the advisory was lifted, especially children and the elderly, who may be more vulnerable to waterborne bacteria.
Increased pathogen and 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, according to the OHA.
While the advisory was in effect, visitors were also warned to avoid wading in nearby creeks, pools of water on the beach, or in discolored water, and to stay clear of water runoff flowing into the ocean. Even when there is no advisory in effect, officials recommend avoiding swimming in the ocean within 48 hours of a rainstorm.
State officials said Cannon Beach’s other recreational activities such as flying kites, picnicking, playing on the beach, and walking posed no risk to health during the advisory. OHA said neighboring beaches were not affected by the advisory.
The advisory was lifted Thursday, June 20. Results from later samples taken by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) showed lower bacteria levels. Contact with the water no longer poses a higher-than-normal risk. However, officials recommend staying out of large pools on the beach that are frequented by birds as well as runoff from those pools because the water may contain increased bacteria from fecal matter.
Since 2003, state officials have 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. Oregon state organizations participating in this program are the OHA, DEQ and Parks and Recreation Department.
The status of water contact advisories at beaches is subject to change. For the most recent information on advisories, visit the Oregon Beach Monitoring Program website at http://www.healthoregon.org/beach or call 971-673-0482, or 877-290-6767 (toll-free).
A history of high bacteria readings
Cannon Beach has a history of high bacteria test results, particularly after rain rinses out waterways and during the height of tourism season when public infrastructure is heavily used.
After high bacteria readings in 2018 at storm outfalls near Gower Street and Chisana Creek, the City revived a water testing program, sampling from as far east as the Ecola Creek Forest Reserve to the beach. The bacteria spikes have been a mystery for more than a decade, with no pattern of contamination sources found by those who’ve studied the problem.
A DNA testing tool was purchased to investigate whether the bacteria came from human waste. The results came back negative except for one, which the city attributed to waste going into a drainage ditch from a nearby homeless camp.
City Manager Bruce St. Denis said the DNA testing showed bacteria was not from human waste but was possibly indicative of bacteria from animal waste and fungi built up in underground pipes. An engineering firm was hired to explore a possible redesign and the installation of bacteria-killing ultraviolet light filters at the outfalls.
Another option would be to open up the pipes and let the stream run through an open system, exposing the runoff to sunlight to kill germs. An open system would also most likely require reconfiguration, and could bring other challenges, such as monitoring what kind of waste could fall or collect in open drainage ditches.
According to the Surfrider Foundation that has tested outfalls around Cannon Beach for a decade, 25-50 percent of readings exceeded state regulatory levels, depending on the year. Four high readings were recorded by the Oregon Beach Monitoring Program since 2016.
In June of 2018, routine sampling by the Oregon Beach Monitoring Program found readings at two freshwater outfalls exceeded the state’s recreational water standard of 130 mpn (most probable number), a benchmark for estimating the number of colony-forming bacteria units in water samples. The Chisana Creek outfall registered at 465 mpn and the Ecola Court outfall pipe was 134 mpn.
St. Denis said the situation is ongoing and has resulted in extensive testing. Numerous projects have been aimed at isolating the source of the recurring problem, including routinely testing all outfalls and testing farther upstream to determine where contaminants are picked up. Tests are done before and after rainfall because spikes seem to coincide with rainy days. The Department of Environmental Quality will review the data after collection.
St. Denis noted that testing is done by state regulators and the City of Cannon Beach. The City tests freshwater outfalls for contamination, while the state testing is done both at freshwater outfalls and in ocean water. Both testing kits yield similar results.
In general, sources of contamination to surface waters include wastewater treatment plants, septic systems, domestic and wild animal manure, and storm runoff, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Ultraviolet light may be the answer to addressing high bacteria readings at some Cannon Beach outfalls.