"Get Ready, Get Set, Swim! Or Not..."
COTTAGE GROVE, Ore. – It's Swimmable Water Weekend, an international observance that comes at a bad time for some spots in Oregon this year. Just in the last two days, health advisories have been issued for three beaches on the coast and for Dorena Reservoir in Lane County.
The culprits are blue-green algae in the reservoir near Cottage Grove, and on the coast, higher than normal levels of fecal bacteria.
Rebecca Hillwig, program coordinator of the Beach Monitoring and Harmful Algae Bloom Programs with the Oregon Health Authority, says yes, that is what you think it is – and summer crowds and hot weather can exacerbate the problem.
"There are a lot of different places where this bacteria can come from,” she says. “Some of it is human. Some of it is domestic animal-related, like dogs on the beach and whatnot. Some of it is wildlife and waterfowl."
Swimmable Water Weekend is a campaign of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a group with more than 200 water monitors in 23 countries.
Peter Nichols, who heads the organization, says the United States does a better job of keeping up with water quality than many nations, but the system isn't perfect.
"The EPA estimates that right around 3.5 million beach-goers will get sick from exposure to polluted waters,” says Nichols. “What we try to do is bring awareness to people of sources of pollution, so that they can work locally to mitigate those sources, so everyone can enjoy the waterway."
In many Oregon lakes, the persistent hot-weather problem is blue-green algae, fed by runoff from fertilizers on lawns and farms. It's especially dangerous to dogs, and can cause health problems for people, too.
Hillwig says there's just too much water in Oregon to monitor everywhere. Her advice is to check major sites at local lakes or beaches for posted warnings, and be cautious before jumping in.
"You know if it looks strange,” she says, “if it looks kind of off, to what it normally is, we always just say, 'When in doubt, you should stay out.' But go there, enjoy the things around the lake – boating is still OK, canoeing, things like that."
Water at popular beaches on the northern Oregon coast is monitored weekly, and every other week elsewhere along the coast, from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Some lakes also are monitored.
The findings are reported online at healthoregon.org or you can call 877-290-6767 to ask for the most recent report about a lake, river or beach.