On Monday July 20th, the City of Cannon Beach alerted the Department of Environmental Quality that an “internal power supply to the Pacific Pump station computer controller failed causing the lift station to go off-line and discharge sewage onto the beach via the Gower Street storm drain outfall. Approximately 11,000 gallons of sewage discharged onto the beach before staff discovered the spill at 0730 hours and switched the lift station into bypass mode stopping the spill.”
The Gower Street Outfall is where an unnamed stream that meanders through Midtown Cannon Beach hits one of the most heavily used beach access points in the entire State of Oregon. This is directly in front of the Wayfarer Restaurant. Elevated enterococcus readings at the Gower Street Outfall are nothing new. Enterococcus is bacteria normally found in feces. Two types, Enterococcus fecalis and Enterococcus fecium, cause human disease, most commonly in the form of urinary tract and wound infections. Other infections, including those of the blood stream (bacteremia), heart valves (endocarditis), and the brain (meningitis) can occur in severely ill patients in hospitals. Enterococci also often colonize open wounds and skin ulcers, and are among the most common antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Swimming and surfing in water contaminated with enterococcus can lead to digestion system illnesses with flu like symptoms.
The causes of these elevated levels of enterococcus have eluded the City for years. What the public does know is that there was once a misconnect from the Surfsand Resort where a sewage pipe was wrongfully connected to the storm drain. That has been fixed. A sewage leak was discovered by the owners of the Ecola Inn when they were doing work on their property. That has been fixed. Some high readings were likely from dirty diapers, seagulls and rats.
The City has been testing the water quality for many years now, trying to correlate the results with the State which only tests once a week during the summer. At some point last year, the City began testing for optical brighteners which show whether detergents are present in the test samples. This demonstrates a definite domestic connection to the storm drain. When these tests allegedly came out negative, Dan Grassick, the City Public Works Director determined that the source of contamination was not human. He subsequently ended the City’s water quality testing program last month.
When the Surfrider Foundation learned of Dan Grassick’s plan to stop testing water quality, Surfrider offered to buy all testing supplies and continue testing for the City free of charge if the City allowed Surfrider to use their lab space. Dan Grassick said no. Less than one month later, the City spilled 11,000 gallons of raw sewage into the Gower Street stream.
Lets be clear, accidents happen, and the City Public Works Crew worked hard to contain the spill, presumably doing everything management told them to do. I believe the Public Works Crew loves Cannon Beach and work hard to make it a better place for us all. However, the City’s response was woefully inadequate. The City did not notify the Mayor or the City Councilors about the spill. The City made no public announcement. The City allegedly removed the contaminated sand 3-4 inches from the surface and called the clean up complete. It is my understanding that in wet sand areas like this, the contaminated water penetrates to the water table, considerably deeper than 3-4 inches.
When I walked the outfall the day after the spill with City Manager Kucera, we found signage 100 yards apart so that walking from the south there was no way to know the site may still be contaminated. We found an elderly man in a wheelchair rinsing his feet in the stream. We also found children running up and down the stream, and very brown water containing visible brown particles. The evening of the spill I witnessed dogs drinking the water and numerous children playing in around the stream. In response to my concerns, the City added a few more signs that said, “Contaminated Water, Avoid Water Play.” In contrast, after Seaside’s sewage spill last year, their signs more understandably read “Unsafe Water, Sewer Contamination, Keep Away.” No mixed messages there.
The State of Oregon has a very limited budget for their seasonal Beach Water Monitoring Program. Their single staff member was in Southern Oregon the day of the spill so the State called on Surfrider to test Gower Street. Over 24 hours after the spill, Surfrider’s test results from the stream on the beach had very high enterococcus readings of 3,130 organisms per 100 milliliters of water. 158 is a health advisory level, but the State only issues health advisories if the high readings are in the ocean. Yes, the State does not issue health advisories for all the creeks and streams that our children play in and our dogs drink from. Dan Grassick responded to these test results by stating the brown water was a “common algae” and the City’s Ecoli testing had lower rates than Surfrider’s Enterococcus tests so the water was safe. On Friday June 24th, Cannon Beach removed all signs, despite Surfrider’s followup testing showing elevated levels of enterococcus (albeit less) for the remainder of the week.
Over the years, the City repeatedly denied any connection between the sewage system and the Gower Street Outfall. Clearly, there is an overflow connection. The City’s response to the sewage spill and lack of transparency over the years with regard to the high enterococcus levels has unfortunately lead to widespread distrust in the community. The City is now on record acknowledging that the alarm failed to go off at the Pacific Pump Station during this spill. How many times did the alarm fail in the past? We frequently have interruption of power on the coast. How many of these outages lead to temporary undetected overflows?
Hopefully the City of Cannon Beach will learn from this incident, and will reinitiate its water quality testing program, notify its leaders next time there is a spill, and go the extra step to protect its residents and visitors by officially closing any contaminated areas until all tests come up clean and safe. We all deserve better.