Officials: Wait 28-48 hours after major storm before swimming in streams, rivers
The mouth of the Mad River and Clam, Luffenholtz, Moonstone, and Trinidad State beaches all had some level of coliform but none of them exceeded limits or were considerable enough to shut down the beaches, according to Humboldt County officials, who recently performed its last water quality testing of the season.
However, with winter storms ahead the quality of water and influx of bacteria could fluctuate during the winter months.
According to Humboldt Baykeeper Director Jennifer Kalt, they performed a round of stream monitoring on Oct. 24 and are still waiting for the County Public Health Lab to run a genetic analysis to identify how much of the bacteria in Janes Creek and Little River came from human, cattle, dog, bird or other sources.
“(Humboldt County’s Department of Environmental Health) stops testing in the winter because of lack of funding and because other counties don’t test then, probably to avoid the worst results,” Kalt said. “I guess the assumption is that people don’t swim in the winter, but we know that is not the case here.”
Kalt said that currently there are no treatments or solutions toward cleaning the water and said that studies are ongoing to identify the sources. A future plan, however, is in the works, according to Kalt, who said the Regional Board’s Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) is set to take place in 2025 to clean up the pollution in various Humboldt county beaches and rivers. TMDL is a regulatory term in the U.S. Clean Water Act, describing a value of the maximum amount of a pollutant that a body of water can receive while still meeting water quality standards.
“We generally find the highest levels during the First Flush, the first major rainstorm in the fall, but it varies by watershed, depending on the source,” Kalt said. “We have not fully analyzed our data from the current study, since it is ongoing — we’ll analyze the data when we have it all (which will) include the genetic analysis.”
Kalt said the bacteria found in the bodies of water are considered pathogenic because they cause gastric illnesses like nausea, diarrhea and vomiting when ingested either through shellfish consumption or accidentally while swimming or surfing. She also said pathogenic bacteria can also cause infections in open wounds, and in rare instances, have led to death, particularly in the elderly or people with compromised immune systems.
“Children are particularly susceptible, since they are less cautious about ingesting water while swimming, wading, and splashing while they play in water,” Kalt said.
In May, Clam Beach near the Strawberry Creek was placed on the statewide Heal The Bay’s “Beach Bummer” list for the third year in a row. With 42 percent (14) of the 33 dry weather samples collected during the summer dry period that exceeded bacterial standards, the area scored an “F” grade in both the dry and wet seasons this year.
The list, however, doesn’t mean the water is unsafe to swim in according to Humboldt Baykeeper officials, but they do advise the public to avoid exposure to bacterial pollution by waiting 24 to 28 hours after a major rainstorm before swimming in streams and rivers. Heal the Bay compiles beach monitoring data from various sources throughout the state.
Heal the Bay’s report suggested that one possible cause of the influx of bacteria was that there’s no longer a beaver dam upstream. The dam controlled portions of Strawberry Creek and in its absence could have potentially altered the retention of time and flow of the creek before it reached the beach which could cause upstream bacterial sources — such as on-site sewage treatment systems and fecal matter from wildlife and domestic animals.
However, depending on the existing conditions, tests results have a way of fluctuating, according to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Supervising Environmental Health Specialist Amanda Ruddy.
“Our last tests were conducted on (Oct. 25) and we tested all five beaches and none of them show samples with reportable limits,” Ruddy said. “There is some level of bacteria in Clam Beach but that doesn’t mean the entire beach is closed. If it did, DHHS would post warning signs near the area.”
Ruddy also said that seasonally, the first big rainfall leads to a flush of more bacteria downstream which could have contributed to the influx of bacteria reported.
“The level of bacteria changes between sample to sample as it dissipates. Of course you should be cautious around water and limit your exposure — try not to drink or swallow a ton of water from them,” Ruddy said. “The tests are typically a very dynamic system because water quality can change throughout the year.”
Testing is set to resume again in April.