Health & Medicine

Folsom Lake and Lake Natoma had high E. coli readings. Should the public be warned?

Katy Giudicessi, of Citrus Heights prepares to take a jump inside Lake Natoma in Folsom on Friday, June 3, 2016.
Katy Giudicessi, of Citrus Heights prepares to take a jump inside Lake Natoma in Folsom on Friday, June 3, 2016. Sacramento Bee File

Environmental advocates are calling on state officials to notify the public about past tests showing high levels of E. coli in Folsom Lake and Lake Natoma, two of the region’s most popular areas for open water swimming and boating.

But officials responsible for recreational use on the lakes say the test results cited are too old, while the agency that conducted the tests says it has no responsibility for public notices.

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board in December concluded that the amount of E. coli in the lower American River had exceeded the federal threshold for safe recreational use. The test results didn’t become public until The Sacramento Bee reported them in late August.

The findings were based on water samples taken from 2007 to 2014. Some tests showed E. coli concentrations in Lake Natoma were eight times the level considered safe for recreational use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

A board report earlier this year found elevated E. coli levels in the lower American River in 2015 and 2016, but did not include samples from Lake Natoma and Folsom Lake, where tens of thousands of people swim, boat and fish every year. The board has limited funds for testing and wanted to focus on areas where higher levels had been found in the past, said Adam Laputz, assistant executive officer at the board. The highest concentrations have been near downtown Sacramento.

E. coli is an indicator of fecal contamination that can sicken people who swim in or drink contaminated water. State and county officials have said they’re not aware of anyone getting sick from such exposure in the American River.

Mike McGuire, a Carmichael resident who was fishing at Lake Natoma next to the Sacramento State Aquatic Center this week, said he was disgusted to learn about past test results showing high E. coli levels in the water. He said warning signs should be posted.

“That’s a family lake. Kids are going to be swimming in it, and you know how kids swim, drinking the water as they do it,” he said.

Stephen Green, president of the Save the American River Association, wrote officials last month at the Aquatic Center and Folsom Lake State Recreation Area to warn them of high E. coli levels. He said the test results are clear enough to notify the public.

He blames the water control board, and not the Aquatic Center or the State Recreational Area, for the lack of public notification.

“The water board needs to be very aggressive with them and tell them the nature of the problem,” he said. “It’s a dereliction of duty that they have not.”

The state water board plans to hire a contractor next year to conduct more tests and determine the sources of E. coli in the lower American River. Officials have said they generally believe it is the result of animal and human waste, including from geese and homeless campers along the American River Parkway.

Brian Dulgar, director of the Aquatic Center, and Richard Preston, superintendent of the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area, said they were not aware of the state test results until they were notified by the Save the American River Association. They said they still have not spoken to anyone from the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Tests at four sites on Folsom Lake have found levels above the Environmental Protection Agency threshold for its “safe-to-swim assessment,” including some results that were four and five times the maximum acceptable level.

Preston, whose district also oversees Lake Natoma, said the results don’t mean the public is at risk now. “There is no current data to show there is any specific health concern today,” he said. “Additionally the report states, ‘E. Coli is only an indicator of potential pathogens and does not necessarily identify an immediate health concern.’”

Tests at five sites on Lake Natoma found elevated levels of E. coli, including two locations with readings eight times the maximum acceptable level. While the average for all of the tests at Natoma were below the federal threshold, some of the test sites had averages close to the threshold.

Dulgar said he needs more current information and he needs to hear it from state officials.

“You don’t want to create hysteria if it’s not something that has been consistently shown,” he said.

The state water board’s Laputz defended his agency’s handling of the tests.

“The Water Board is not a public health agency. Our primary charge is to identity water quality concerns and then work with the appropriate agencies to implement the appropriate programs to address the concerns,” Laputz said.

He said board staff has gone over the test results with Sacramento County environmental officials.

Sacramento County officials, meanwhile, said they don’t see the need to notify the public about the results, other than to tell people not to drink water from the American River. County spokeswoman Kim Nava said Monday that officials will maintain contact with the control board to stay informed about future tests on the river.

Here are the basics on how E. coli outbreaks happen and what symptoms to look for.

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