High bacteria levels found in Kenai River

Posted: Sunday, July 18, 2010

KENAI - State officials are warning people about elevated bacteria levels in Kenai River water off a popular dipnetting beach.

The Department of Environmental Conservation found high levels of enterococci bacteria at North Kenai Beach in samples taken July 8-11. The beach is near the mouth of the river.

The bacteria can cause diarrhea, stomach aches, or ear, eye and skin infections. The bacteria comes from warm-blooded animals. Department officials said the cause of the elevated levels is unknown.

"It's unlikely to be direct human sewage," said Nancy Sonafrank, DEC water division manager. "We've also ruled out the wastewater treatment facility because they do regular monitoring."

Kenai City Manager Rick Koch, however, said there's a suspected cause.

"While the DEC says that the source is unknown, in my discussions with them they say that it's likely fecal matter from birds that are feeding on the fish waste that is being left on the beach," Koch told the Peninsula Clarion. "They said there's even some harbor seals that are feeding on some of the fish waste that could contribute to it as well."

The city for years has encouraged the state to require cleaning up of fish waste on the beach, he said.

"We expect to revisit that discussion with the state in regards to the fish waste that's produced by the participants in the personal use fishery," he said.

The personal use fishery began July 10. It draws hundreds of people wading and trying to catch sockeye salmon in long-handle nets.

DEC officials advised beach users to avoid drinking or swimming in the water, and to wash after contact. They recommend rinsing fish harvested from the beach with clean water, and cooking them to at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit internal temperature.

"We think it's still safe for fishing as long as precautions are taken," Sonafrank said.

The national standard for enterococci bacteria in water is 35 bacteria per 100 milliliters, Sonafrank said.

"We're seeing an average of 59 bacteria per 100 milliliters," she said. "It's somewhat over on the average but that's not really at all extreme."

DEC department will continue to monitor water quality. If bacteria levels increase, the city may post advisory signs at the beach.

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