With the North Coast regional water board recommending that six local waterways containing high levels of fecal bacteria be added to state list of impaired waters, the next task is finding the original source of these microbes.
“In some cases, it’s just a mystery,” Humboldt Baykeeper Policy Director Jennifer Kalt said. “We are trying to raise money to do a study to see where it is coming from so we can develop a strategy to reduce this type of pollution.”
While this bacteria can be a health hazard if unchecked, it also makes affected water bodies eligible for government-backed pollution control plans if they meet certain criteria.
After reviewing data gathered during the last four nine years by Humboldt Baykeeper’s Citizen Water Monitoring Program, the regional board is planning to recommend to the state that these waterways — the Little River, Widow White Creek, Martin Slough, Elk River, Jolly Giant Creek and Campbell Creek — be added to the 2012 federal Clean Water Act’s list of impaired waters.
The data showed that these water bodies currently contain bacterial concentrations higher than allowable under state regulations, with a recent study showing samples from Jolly Giant Creek having over 600 times the acceptable level.
If approved by the regional and state water boards, regional water board Assistant Executive Officer David Leland said these waterways will be included in California’s integrated report, which will open them up to a pollution mitigation program.
“A water listed as impaired becomes a candidate for developing a total maximum daily load analysis, which could also be referred to as a watershed analysis and plan,” Leland wrote in an email to the Times-Standard. “This is a step when specific sources would be identified.”
Kalt said high levels of fecal coliform — a type of bacteria, such as E. coli, commonly found in animal and human feces — in waterways can stem from a variety of sources, including septic failures, leaky pipes, agricultural runoff, pets and transient camps. If the amount of microbes becomes too concentrated in local waters, they could present a health risk — both to recreational water users and to Humboldt Bay’s robust oyster industry.
“Hopefully, this listing will help get attention that this has an effect on water-based recreation like that at Moonstone Beach, but that it’s also impacting a really sustainable local food industry,” Kalt said.
Humboldt Bay Harbor Commissioner and Coast Seafoods Southwest Operations Manager Greg Dale said that bacteria from these tributaries do not normally affect the oyster industry, due to the bay’s large volume, but he said that situation changes when it starts raining. Once a distinct rainfall threshold is reached for a section of the bay, Dale said, bacteria-laced runoff from watersheds causes the area to close, shutting down shellfish harvesting along with it.
“There are times when it rains, you can get a five-day closure,” Dale said. “If you’re out two to three weeks, which happens, you start losing market share.”
Under the National Shellfish Sanitation Program, Dale said shellfish must be continuously monitored for fecal bacteria concentrations to ensure that markets do not “sell a food item that makes people sick.”
“We’re always looking for the worst case scenario,” Dale said.“As an industry and a business, we’d rather err on the side of caution.”
Over the last couple years, Dale said that local shellfish industries have had fewer closed days than normal, which he partially attributed to the ongoing statewide drought. While he said he does not believe the board’s listing process does anything significant, Dale said it can at least provide a means for funding to address the issue.
“The first part is doing the sampling,” Dale said. “The second aspect is once you’ve identified the issue, we all work together to find funding to fix the problem.”
Leland said that due to the number of waters already on the list, “a water new on the list may not be worked on for a number of years.”
“Total maximum daily load development typically takes years,” Leland wrote. “Depending on complexity, this stage can range from two to 10 years.”
Once that stage is completed, Leland said the implementation of this pollutant clean-up plan “usually is measured in decades.”
The public comment period on the regional board’s recommended waters for the draft integrated report will last until April 18.
More information on the listings can be found at www.waterboards.ca.gov/northcoast/.