Water at one of Sacramento’s most popular public beaches regularly records E. coli levels far higher than what federal regulators recommend as safe for recreational use.
Tiscornia Beach, at the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers near Discovery Park, recorded E. coli levels in February that were seven times the threshold set by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to new weekly testing by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.
Water at Tiscornia surpassed the EPA's standard in seven of 10 tests that were held from Jan. 11 through March 15.
The water board, which started its weekly testing this year, examines water at nine sites on the lower American River and two sites on Steelhead Creek. Two spots in Discovery Park in March registered levels identical to Tiscornia's highest. Only two locations — Camp Pollack and Sutter's Landing — did not register any unsafe readings during the 10-week period.
The new data — the first release of weekly testing that will continue into summer — highlight ongoing questions about E. coli levels within Sacramento's waterways, which are used by thousands of swimmers, boaters and anglers, especially during warm weather months.
"We are very concerned," said Stephen Green, president of the Save the American River Association. "In the summer, there are always people in the water at Discovery Park."
E. coli is "an indicator bacteria used to identify fecal pollution from human, pet, livestock or wildlife waste," water board officials said. Most strains of E. coli are harmless, but others pose a threat to human health.
Dr. Olivia Kasirye, Sacramento County's public health officer, said that while there are more than 700 subspecies of E. coli formed from animal and human waste, "only a small number ... cause disease in human beings."
The weekly tests from the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board do not identify the specific types of E. coli found in the water or their sources. However, water board officials said the elevated levels should serve as a caution for people who use the river.
"We know there is risk based on the E. coli levels, without knowing the source," said Adam Laputz, assistant executive officer of the water board.
County officials said they were unaware of anyone becoming sickened by E. coli in the lower American River.
Tests along the lower American River, roughly between Howe Avenue and the confluence of the Sacramento River, in recent years have found average levels of E. coli that were higher than the EPA standard, "beyond which the water body is not recommended for recreation." Many of the problematic areas have seen high concentrations of homeless camps, officials have said.
Beginning this summer, the water board, along with the Sacramento Area Sewer District and Sacramento County, will launch a yearlong study using DNA testing to determine the sources of E. coli bacteria. In addition to human waste, sewer overflows, wildlife and domestic dogs are potential sources of contamination, officials said.
The DNA testing will show what percentage of the bacteria is from people vs. animals and birds, and whether it contains potentially dangerous pathogens such as giardia, salmonella and Hepatitis A, Laputz said.
Meanwhile, the water board said it was sharing the weekly E. coli data with Sacramento County health officials and park managers, who are in a position to post warnings and restrict access to waterways.
County officials said they have no plans to close beaches as of yet, but will install "healthy water habits" signage at popular water recreation locations in coming weeks. Those signs will convey information about the general risks of ingesting or swimming in a natural body of water, as well as the URL for a website with the latest testing information.
"It would be premature to draw any conclusions based on the information we have right now," Kasirye said. "Yes, there are elevated levels, so it is important to get that message out and tell people ... 'If you do choose to swim, these are the things you need to do to make sure that you minimize the risk and take care of yourself.'"
One way to minimize risk? Don't drink the water. The water board also recommends showering after swimming in the river.
Last week, the water board gathered around 60 federal, state, and local water officials and stakeholders to talk about water contamination and what to do about it. Topics for the breakout discussion groups included homelessness, E. coli and trash.
None of the agencies could offer a definitive explanation as to why the E. coli levels at Tiscornia on Feb. 22 were so high. That time period did not see rain that could have created runoff and elevated levels. Officials said spiked levels often last for a short period of time.
Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Coalition to End Homelessness, said he thought a lack of public restrooms could be a major contributor to high E. coli levels. On any given night there are thousands of people without access to a toilet, he said. Many of those people camp along the American River.
"What we should be doing is opening up bathrooms," Erlenbusch said. "It's sad that it has come to this. Policymakers only have themselves to blame. "
Last year, Sacramento County supervisors approved a $5 million plan to beef up patrols along the American River Parkway and clean up its homeless encampments.