The Public Eye

Lower American River contains unsafe levels of E. coli. Are homeless camps to blame?

Levels of E. coli bacteria found in the lower American River exceed the federal threshold for safe recreational use, in part due to human waste from homeless camps, state regulators say.

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board has proposed adding the bacteria to a list of pollutants that make the lower American River a federally designated impaired water body. A state board is expected to sign off on the decision later this year and ask for final approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

E. coli can sicken and even kill people who swim in or drink contaminated water. State regulators say they’re not aware of anyone who has been sickened by E. coli in the the lower American River, but nearly a decade of test data indicate the risk of exposure.

“It should give people some discomfort about using the water – it’s not good,” said Ron Stork of Friends of the River.

A report summarizing test results from 2007 to 2014 found average levels of E. coli at three sites that were higher than the EPA standard, “beyond which the water body is not recommended for recreation.” The three sites are in the westernmost section of the American River Parkway, near downtown Sacramento, where the highest concentration of homeless camps are set up.

Seventeen of the 25 test sites had at least one recording in excess of the federal threshold, according to the “Safe-to-Swim Assessment.”

Thousands of people use the lower American River each year, from the boaters who launch at Discovery Park, to the swimmers who enjoy the beach at Sutter’s Landing Regional Park, to the triathletes who participate in Eppie’s Great Race.

“My concern is that it could make me sick,” said Alex McDonald, who was sitting in the water with his wife at Sutter’s Landing last week. “I would like to know more.”

The Regional Water Quality Control Board is still investigating the exact causes of E. coli pollution, but clearly it comes from animal and human waste, including from the homeless camps along the lower American River between the Nimbus Dam and the Sacramento River, said Andrew Altevogt, assistant executive officer.

Placing a pollutant on the federal list gives the state greater authority to regulate it. In the case of E. coli, that would typically mean restricting wastewater discharges, Altevogt said.

But the lower American River doesn’t receive any sewer discharge. The likely sources of the E. coli are homeless campers, recreational users of the river and birds, Altevogt said.

“This is a bit of an unusual situation,” he said.

If bacteria on the lower American becomes a federally designated pollutant, the state could set limits on how much could be discharged into the river, Altevogt said.

Sacramento County spokesman Kim Nava said public health officials need more time to study the state’s bacteria reports before they can respond.

The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors last week approved an additional $5 million a year to address illegal camping on the American River and Dry Creek parkways. The funding is intended to hire rangers to enforce the county’s ordinance against camping on the parkway, as well as pay for maintenance crews to remove tons of garbage from the camps.

“My interest is in the environmental travesty that’s about to happen,” engineering consultant Roland Brady told the board, referring to when the next high water event brings human waste and other harmful waste from the camps into the American River.

Brady, a geologist who works in watershed restoration and other area, has teamed with Lisa Lindberg, who lives next to a tributary of the American River, to highlight pollution in the watershed. Last week they showed a Sacramento Bee reporter the waste accumulated in camps along Steelhead Creek, near Garden Highway.

Lindberg pointed to a toilet seat and said campers will place such seats on plastic chemical containers and go to the bathroom. Then they dump the waste in the creek, she said.

Nava confirmed that maintenance workers routinely pick up waste-filled containers at camp sites. The waste is placed in storage tanks.

Stephen Green, president of the Save the American River Association, said the additional funding approved by the county will help with the waste. But additional measures may be needed for the homeless who will inevitably remain in the parkway.

“We have seen people dumping human feces in the water,” he said. “People swimming in the water don’t need turds floating around them.”

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