Bacterial barrage washes ashore – tests imminent for E. coli sources

Paul Mann
Mad River Union 

HUMBOLDT – Humboldt Baykeeper and Pacific Watershed Associates are poised for genetic tests and analysis to pinpoint the sources of the fecal bacterium E. coli in six Humboldt waterways deemed “impaired” by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Corrective action hinges on the results of the new tests. They are aimed at finding the precise sources of the pollutant, although E. coli is known to originate in the guts of warm blooded animals (humans, livestock, dogs, horses, birds, raccoons etc.). Other sources are faulty private septic systems, leaking municipal sewer lines and transient encampments. The bacteria can cause humans severe gastrointestinal distress.

Todd Kraemer, a hydrologist with Pacific Watershed Associates, a consulting firm in McKinleyville, said in an interview that tracing the sources of E. coli with genetic markers will begin later this month or in September.

“This technique will tell us the local animal sources of E. coli,” Kraemer said. “In the past, we tested for the concentration levels of the bacteria. We have been developing our sampling plan during the past two months and expect to begin sampling itself in the near future.”

High levels of fecal bacteria such as E. coli plague Little River, Widow White Creek, Martin Slough, lower Elk River, Campbell Creek and Jolly Giant Creek.

Humboldt Baykeeper found with its water quality tests in 2014 that Jolly Giant Creek had 600 times the acceptable level of fecal indicator bacteria.

The difficulty, said Baykeeper director Jennifer Kalt, is that the high level does not reveal the sources of the pollution. Hence the need for the genetic markers.

“We will do a new genetic analysis of Bacteroides, which will identify the different host animals that are contributing to bacterial pollution in these waterways,” Kalt said.

“This newer method can identify not only presence and absence, but also the fraction of each host animal that is contributing to the pollution. This will allow us to examine different stream reaches and identify possible sources. Then we can develop strategies to reduce the pollution from those sources.

“This type of study has been done successfully in many coastal areas and is ongoing in the Russian River,” she added.

Pinpointing the sources is difficult and laborious, Kraemer explained, because so many variables are in play. Fecal bacteria mix with other pollutants. Levels fluctuate in tandem with night and day temperatures, with changing seasons and with the prevailing conditions in channel bottoms. “E. coli also vary temporally and spatially depending on the types of land use in each watershed,” Kraemer said.

Many more data, including real-time data, are needed and the new genetic tests will help in that regard as well. The data used by the Environmental Protection Agency to rate Humboldt waterways were already five years old.

Do local pollution and the threat to public health continue to worsen?

“It is not known if it has worsened in our creeks,” Kalt said. “We just don’t have enough data. Our sampling from 2005-2012 was done two or three times a year, generally at one or two sites per waterway. So really it was just a snapshot. Much more intensive sampling needs to be done, but there has been very little funding available. The 303(d) listing should help with that.”

Kalt was referring to the listing issued in June by the EPA about Humboldt’s impaired waterways. That designation will help spur the eventual development of a pollution control plan under the federal Clean Water Act.

The EPA’s action in June affirmed the finding in August a year ago by the North Coast Regional Water Quality Board that the six Humboldt waterways should be federally listed. The board, the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services and Coastal Seafoods are assisting with the genetic testing and analysis. Pacific Watershed’s GIS modeling and sampling scheme will help direct when and where Humboldt Baykeeper collects water quality data.

Humboldt Baykeeper began collecting fecal coliform data in 2005 and submitted them to the regional board.

Tracking and combating E. coli require constant vigilance – they are not one-time tasks, says Operations Manager Greg Dale of Coast Seafoods on the Eureka Waterfront. The company supplies some 70 percent of the oysters consumed by Californians and a clean Humboldt Bay is an operational imperative.

“This is one of those things we continually work at,” Dale said. “It takes time to identify fecal bacteria, and then figure out what to do about it. It’s like entropy in nature – the minute you fix it, it starts falling apart. But we get real good help from Humboldt Baykeeper and both cities and an educated public that is careful about what they put down their drains. That means we can harvest oysters 330 days a year and people can eat them raw.”

One of Kalt’s highest priorities is future data collection at Janes Creek in Arcata. It flows into North Humboldt Bay, where three-fourths of the oysters sold in California are grown. The creek borders West End Road, which was formerly the industrial dumping site of immense amounts of chemical and wood waste left behind as the 21st century began by the Louisiana-Pacific timber company (now LP), followed by the defunct Humboldt Flakeboard manufacturing plant. Janes Creek and its adjoining wetlands were seriously damaged.

Regarding creeks and beaches, Heal the Bay’s 2014-2015 “Annual Beach Report Card” on pollution graded Clam Beach near Strawberry Creek an “F.”

The non-profit gave an “A” each to Trinidad State Beach near Mill Creek; Luffenholtz Beach near Luffenholtz Creek; Moonstone County Park, Little River State Beach; and Mad River mouth, north.

However, Kalt noted, the recent EPA listing rated several of those beaches, not just Clam Beach, as impaired by pathogenic bacteria, based on weekly testing under the Ocean Monitoring Program of Humboldt County Environmental Health.

Humboldt Baykeeper staff regularly post the county’s beach monitoring results at swimguide.org.

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