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Source of Mill Beach pollution remains elusive

Oregon Public Health officials have issued a second health advisory for water at Mill Beach after tests revealed a higher-than normal level of fecal bacteria.

The advisory does not have scientists overly concerned at this point, as Mill Beach has only had an incident rate of 12.5 percent for the year, said Aaron Borisenko of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Usually, it hovers around a 15 percent incident rate.

The bacterial level was found to be 763 colony-forming units per milliliter of water on Aug. 6, Borisenko said. The acceptable level is 158 units per ml.

Increased pathogen and fecal bacteria levels in ocean waters can come from shore and inland sources, such as stormwater runoff, sewer overflows, failing septic systems and animal waste from livestock and pets. 

“Being a smaller city doesn’t prompt the same level of DEQ water quality implementation called best management practices for National Pollution Discharge Elimination Standards,” said City Engineer Loree Pryce, who recently returned from a national conference on water quality in Portland. “Not being required to reduce or eliminate pollution means addressing it because it is the right thing to do, not just because you are required to do it.”

Usually, when fecal coliform levels are higher than normal here, it’s been after a rainstorm, although upticks have been reported when the stream adjacent to the parking lot makes a season shift and wraps around the south end of a seastack on the beach, rather than flowing straight to the ocean.

Brookings has had a relatively dry summer, with the latest rains providing only .33 inch of precipitation.

Direct contact with contaminated water can result in diarrhea, stomach cramps, skin rashes, upper respiratory infections and other illnesses, the health authority notes. Such contact with the water should be avoided in that area until the advisory is lifted, especially for children and the elderly, who may be more vulnerable to waterborne bacteria.

While this advisory is in effect, visitors should avoid wading in nearby creeks, pools of water on the beach, or in discolored water, and avoid 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.

Advisories are more akin to awareness, like being aware of the presence of poison oak while hiking, OPH officials said.

Twice-a-month testing is conducted by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the advisory will be lifted when the next test is clear.

The city plans to have a participant from Oregon State University’s Resource Assistance for Rural Environments program here for 11 months; one of his projects will be to work with the local watershed council to more thoroughly study Mill and Harris beaches’ water to determine if there is a direct upstream source contributing to the contaminations.

The city also has budgeted a water quality public outreach and education program for the fiscal year ending next July.

Tourism

The health advisories have little effect on tourism in the area, but the curiosity of city officials has been piqued with the increasingly frequent alerts.

The city last fall used $101,538 of System Development Charge funds and a $34,973 state grant to have the rutted road to the beach paved, and installed restrooms, a picnic table and ramp to the beach to entice visitors to the popular scenic area.

It’s a far cry from when Mayor Ron Hedenskog used to bushwhack his way through the weeds to get to the beach in the 1960s.

The city had owned a narrow strip of roadway to the beach for many years and, in 2011, purchased additional property to widen the road and expand the parking area. The area saw an immediate jump in public use of the park after the road was reopened in March.

The advisory does not mean people can’t visit or play on the beach, the health agency emphasized.

“Other recreational activities like flying kites, picnicking, playing on the beach, walking on the beach pose no health risk even during an advisory,” said Oregon Public Health spokesman Jonathan Modie.

And neighboring beaches are not affected by this advisory. 

The status of water contact advisories at beaches is subject to change. For information on advisories, visit the Oregon Beach Monitoring Program website at www.healthoregon.org/beach or call 971-673-0400, or toll free at 877-290-6767. 

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