(originally published in SARA's 2017 Fall/Winter issue of RiverWatch)
Water quality studies in the Lower American River over the past decade have consistently shown elevated levels of E.coli bacteria near the confluence with the Sacramento River in Discovery Park that exceed the federal threshold for safe recreational use. Studies that ended in 2014 also found unsafe levels of E.coli in Lake Natoma near Nimbus Flat and the Sacramento State University Aquatic Center.
E.coli comes from human and animal waste and can sicken and even kill people who swim in or drink the contaminated water. But spokesmen for the state Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, which conducted the studies, say they are unaware of anyone sickened by exposure to the bacteria.
“High levels of E.coli do not necessarily mean that someone will get sick if they swim or ingest the water, but does mean that there is increased risk for exposure to some pathogens,” a spokesman said.
Obvious sources of the bacteria are animals and homeless campers who have been seen dumping their waste in the river. Crews cleaning up campsites have consistently found excrement around the camps. There also are four sewage systems along the Lower American with a history of overflows and decaying infrastructure that have released sewage that drains to the American and Sacramento Rivers.
More than 400,000 gallons of sewage flowed out of the Sacramento Area Sewer District system during the heavy rainfall in January and February of this year. With the first heavy rains this fall, large quantities of fecal matter were expected to drain into the Lower American.
When the Sacramento Bee first reported the findings of the water board studies late this summer, Sacramento County health officials said they were “blindsided” by the findings. Water board spokesmen contend, however, that they had communicated with county officials “during the first few years” that studies were conducted and again in 2016. Information also was placed on the water board’s website. They did not, however, alert the staff of the Aquatic Center which conducts training sessions in Lake Natoma and has water programs for children each summer. Lake Natoma is widely heralded and much utilized as a major national rowing regatta center. The water board also did not share their findings with the state Park and Recreation Dept. which has jurisdiction over the lake.
Water board officials acknowledge that there is a need for better communications and coordination with health officials, and efforts are underway to do that, they claim.
To date there have been limited efforts to identify other sources of the bacteria besides animals and campers. In 2014, the water board investigated a complaint alleging that the City of Folsom sewer system had “inadequate capacity.” They concluded the city “has fixed the capacity issues that were identified in the early 2000s” and “is properly operating and maintaining its sanitary collection system.”
A water board spokesman said they are “in the process of securing funds to conduct a microbial source tracking study in several watersheds with historically elevated E.coli levels, including the Lower American River watershed.”
The water quality studies were conducted under a program titled a “Safe-to-Swim Assessment.” For the thousands of Lower American River users who learned about the elevated bacteria levels for the first time last summer, the microbial source tracking study should have been launched years ago.
A minimal response would involve posting areas where bacteria is elevated so that people can make their own decision as to whether they want to use the water. State and county health officials should make a determination as to whether there should be restrictions in areas with elevated bacteria.
And state and county health officials should be working together in an aggressive effort to locate and eliminate sources of the bacteria.
As of this writing, however, none of that is happening.