Time and tides wait for no one when tracking beach contamination

OSU team, led by Extension educator Frank Burris, taking water samples at Brookings, Oregon. Photo by Lynn Ketchum.
OSU team, led by Extension educator Frank Burris, taking water samples at Brookings, Oregon. Photo by Lynn Ketchum.

It’s 3 a.m. on the Oregon coast and the Oregon State University Extension Service is there, helping to ensure that Oregon beaches are safe from contamination.

For more than a year, Frank Burris, part of OSU Extension’s Watershed Education program, teamed with state and federal agencies to document the timing and extent of bacterial contamination on beaches and to trace the sources of that contamination.

State agencies monitor Oregon’s beaches to protect public health against disease-causing microorganisms. When monitoring reveals fecal bacteria levels above the federal standard, the beaches are posted with warnings to the public that contact with the ocean water may cause sickness. Contaminated beaches remain posted under advisory until follow-up samples determine that fecal bacteria in the ocean water have fallen below the federally set limit.

By sampling the beaches every day, Burris found that the high bacteria counts generally last for just a day or two, which made it possible to remove the warning advisories much sooner. On the flip side, he found that daily beach sampling recorded more events of elevated bacteria counts than previously documented.

“You may not realize that you have a problem until you have data,” Burris said. “But having data helps you solve the problem.” Such intense sampling required a corps of technicians and volunteers, trained by Burris and the research team to collect data following strict guidelines. Every few weeks and during each significant storm the researchers sampled the ocean water at waist height at several points near incoming creeks on the south coast. Every few months, they sampled the same area each hour for 24 hours, wading into the surf throughout the night with headlamps.

“It gets pretty exciting when it’s dark and all you can see are whitecaps lit by your headlamp,” Burris said.

As coastal development expands to accommodate new residents and increasing numbers of vacationers, beaches in Oregon may experience more fecal bacteria contamination. Through OSU Extension and the South Coast Watershed Council, Burris is developing an educational program to help coastal residents reduce bacteria on the beach and upstream from the beaches.

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