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Sherrill Doran, CH2MHill, will have a short presentation on the Smith River Bacterial Source Tracking Study
Thursday, June 8
6pm, North Bend Library. 
Wildlife blamed for bacteria growth



ADAM PEARSON June 6, 2006

To the surprise of many, a bacteria-source study conducted in Smith River shows that birds and small mammals contribute the most fecal matter to the watershed.

The usual suspects — cows and humans — appeared as blips on the radar screen compared to the zeppelin of birds, small animals, deer and elk.

“What they found out was, most of it is wildlife,” said Bill Town, chairman of the Smith River Watershed Bacteria Source Tracking Study and an alternate on the Smith River Watershed Council.

Dogs and cats were no small contributors, but ranchers and residents along Smith River say those contributions can be easily mitigated as long as septic tanks and cattle aren’t doing all the dirty work.

“If there isn’t a problem, then we can smile at ourselves and say, ‘We’ve been doing a pretty damn good job of protecting our watersheds,’” Town said.

Smith River residents hope the independent DNA study, conducted by CH2M Hill, based in Denver, will persuade the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to redirect some heat from their livestock as the river’s main contaminators.

The study is still in draft form. CH2M Hill officials expect its finalized report will help DEQ and other public and private land agencies determine where they should focus on treating bacteria sources for watersheds.

Public meetings will be held Thursday in Roseburg and North Bend for comments on the study.

Private landowners say the study shows that human and domesticated animal bacterial additions to the river are fairly benign. But DEQ officials say those additions would have been higher if the study was conducted during a year of normal rainfall.

Bobbi Lindberg, a DEQ natural resource specialist based in Eugene, said the 2004-05 winter received only 58 percent of normal rainfall and the usual runoff from the river’s surrounding lands didn’t contribute to the bacteria study.

For the study, samples were taken from August 2004 to July 2005 on the second Tuesday of each month at 13 stations, located on the Lower Smith River, the North Fork of the Smith River, the Lower Umpqua River and at Winchester Bay.

Lindberg said the agency was most interested in data that would have been received during high flow events.

The DEQ has five river flow categories. The Smith River’s flows are categorized by a water gauge near Elkton that measures the rivers’ cubic feet of water moving per second.

During the 2004-05 winter, Smith River typically stayed at the middle river stage: midrange. It registered at the next river stage — wet — only six times, and reached high just three times.

Lindberg said the study contains little data from wet flows and is void of data from the river’s highest flow, when the river’s bacteria levels reach their highest.

“We don’t really know what we’ll find during those high-flow events,” Lindberg said.

Sherrill Doran, a CH2M Hill hydrologist who worked on the study, said the study’s findings are consistent with other tracking studies the agency has conducted across the country, despite high-flow evidence.


 IF YOU GO ...
WHAT: Findings of Smith River Watershed Bacteria Source Tracking Study
WHEN: 10 a.m. to noon Thursday
WHERE: Room 216 of the Douglas County Courthouse in Roseburg
WHY: Comments from the public meetings on the report will be included in the study’s final report

SECOND MEETING: 6 p.m. Thursday, North Bend Library meeting room, North Bend

INFORMATION: Bill Town, study chairman, 587-4413

Paul Heberling, Umpqua Basin water quality coordinator for DEQ in Roseburg, said he’s not totally discounting the study’s evidence because nothing can be done about the weather.

However, Heberling wishes the overwhelming amount of evidence pointing toward birds as main bacteria sources could have at least had two categories: geese and cormorants, or seabirds.

Heberling said that people have told the DEQ for years that more geese are staying in watersheds throughout the year and are probably contributing to higher bacteria levels.

Heberling said there’s also a large cormorant community on an island in the Umpqua estuary near Reedsport that is probably contributing a lot of bacteria. He said if it could be identified, it could probably be treated.

Heberling said he supported the study because he thought it would have at least pinpointed geese contributions.

“I felt we were going to get that kind of analysis,” he said.

The Smith River Watershed Bacteria Source Tracking Study began after the DEQ reported to Smith River residents that bacteria levels on the Smith River during high flows would have to be cut by 50 percent.

Lindberg said a 2001 DEQ study on the Smith River during a heavy winter rainstorm showed the river exceeded its Total Maximum Daily Load for bacteria.

The TMDLs were partly created to protect shellfish on the Oregon Coast. Shellfish harvesting is considered a recreational activity that brings revenue to Oregon coastal communities, but it is often closed due to high bacteria levels.

Smith River Watershed Council members say they couldn’t think of any large, unnatural contaminant sources, so it investigated bacteria sourcing and found DNA testing to be the most reliable, yet expensive identifier.

The budget for the DNA project reached $242,245. It was partly funded by state and federal agencies, with the Smith River Watershed Council working 18 percent of the budget with “in-kind” labor and equipment.

Comments from state and federal agency officials and the public at Thursday’s meetings will be included in the study’s final report.

Town said even though the study has shown bacteria contributions from human activity are minor, thus far, “there’s still room for improvement.”

• You can reach reporter Adam Pearson at 9
57-4213 or by e-mail at






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