Health & Medicine

E. coli levels in the lower American River are still unsafe. Will this new testing help?

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

The lower American River continues to be contaminated with potentially harmful levels of bacteria, water regulators said this week, and they are taking steps to pinpoint the sources in an effort to protect the waterway and the public.

Beginning this summer, staffers from the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board will launch a yearlong study using sophisticated DNA testing to determine the sources of E. coli bacteria that have been found at levels higher than federal regulators recommend for safe recreational use of waterways. The sources of contamination are unknown, but likely include human waste from homeless camps, sewer overflows, wildlife and domestic dogs, officials said.

The testing will show what percentage of the bacteria is from people versus animals and birds, and whether it contains potentially dangerous pathogens such as giardia, salmonella and Hepatitis A, said Adam Laputz, the board’s assistant executive director. The study is expected to cost $300,000 to $400,000.

Information gathered by the agency will help county health officials determine the level of risk to people who use the river for boating, swimming, kayaking, fishing and other recreational activities, Laputz said. It also will help authorities figure out ways to reduce bacteria levels in the waterway.

“If the main source is pets, maybe we get at the issue by educating the public” about cleaning up after their dogs and cats, he said. If homeless people who camp along the river are primarily responsible, the county, social service agencies and others likely will have to work together to come up with a solution for proper disposal of fecal matter, said Laputz.

Tests along the lower American River, roughly between Howe Avenue and the confluence of the Sacramento River, have in recent years found average levels of E. coli at various sites that were higher than the standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency, “beyond which the water body is not recommended for recreation.” The most problematic areas have high concentrations of homeless camps, officials said.

The most recent samples, taken in January, continue to raise concerns, geologist Alicia Wenzel reported at a meeting of the water board this week. Areas showing high levels of bacteria include Discovery Park, near downtown Sacramento. When the park floods, human waste and trash from homeless camps end up in the river, several experts told the board.

Most strains of E. coli are harmless, Wenzel said, but others pose a risk to human health. State regulators said they are unaware of anyone who has been sickened by E. coli in the lower American River.

In addition to determining the sources of of E. coli in the waterway, the study will look at whether contamination is higher during certain times of the year, and which pathogens are present in popular swimming and boating areas, Wenzel said.

The data will help county health officials “determine when public notification is necessary” to alert people about pathogens in the waterway, she said.

Waste generated by homeless people along the American River Parkway keep county rangers busy throughout the year, Jeff Leatherman, director of regional parks, told the water board.

Leatherman said the lower six miles of the parkway, from Discovery Park to the Campus Commons golf course, has the highest concentration of illegal camping by homeless people. “Though, in reality, there isn’t a spot on the American River that we don’t see it,” Leatherman said.

In 2017, he said, the county issued 1,350 citations for illegal encampments. In many of the camps, “we find three or four gallon buckets of human waste,” he said. The county will spend more than $3 million to clean up camps along the parkway this year, Leatherman said, compared to $500,000 in 2014.

Eighteen staff members worked full time in 2017 to clean up camps in the area, he said, compared to just two workers in 2014. Because of the huge volume of trash, “we’ve gone from removing it by hand to using heavy equipment,” he said. He said workers removed 546 tons of trash from the parkway in 2017.

Nancy Kitz, a Sacramento resident who said she and her friends have been documenting the desecration of the parkway in recent years, also addressed the board. “Quite frankly, it’s devastating when you see it up close,” she said. “This is a human crisis, and an environmental crisis as well. We need to recapture our parkway for everyone.”

Sacramento County supervisors in August approved a $5 million plan to beef up patrols along the American River Parkway and clean up its homeless encampments.

The board also heard from Ryan Loofbourrow, chief executive officer of Sacramento Steps Forward. Loofbourrow did not dispute that homeless people might be contributing to the parkway’s contamination, but called for compassion as authorities try to deal with the area’s burgeoning homeless crisis.

He pointed out that a lack of affordable housing has left many Californians with no safe and stable place to sleep.

“We have money, we have the will, but we don’t have the places to put people,” Loofbourrow said. So homeless people build a fragile support system “in places like waterways,” he said.

“Of course we need enforcement and park maintenance,” he said. “But we also have to find tools that will have an impact within the person. We need to get people connected back to housing.”

Cynthia Hubert: 916-321-1082, @Cynthia_Hubert

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