Want to cool off in American River this weekend? Don’t drink the water

Record heat could send swimmers to the American River for relief during the Labor Day weekend, but public health officials say they should avoid drinking the water.

As The Sacramento Bee reported earlier this week, tests by a state regulator show levels of the bacteria E. coli in parts of the lower American River closest to downtown Sacramento fail to meet federal standards for safe recreational use.

“(Sacramento County) Public Health has no information suggesting that a warning to the public is appropriate or needed at this time, beyond the normal precautions that everyone should take when swimming in a body of water that is open to the public and animals including waterfowl, such as not swallowing the water and showering after swimming,” county spokeswoman Kim Nava said in a written statement.

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.

The county has not recorded any exposure cases from E. coli in a water body in recent years, Nava said.

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 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 homeless camps are set up. Tests from the last two years have found similar levels of E. coli.

State regulators are still investigating the causes of the elevated bacteria levels but say they are clearly the result of animal and human waste, including from the homeless camps that line the river on the lower parkway.