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2019 Ketchikan BEACH Monitoring Program

Frequently asked questions

What is the BEACH program?

The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 2002 in response to increased occurrences of water-borne illnesses. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administers grant funds to states, tribes and territories under the Act to establish monitoring and public notification programs. The BEACH program has established national marine water quality monitoring and reporting standards for fecal waste contamination and notifies the public when levels exceed state standards. 

Why monitor Ketchikan beaches?

The Alaska BEACH program was initiated in Ketchikan to evaluate potential health risks by fecal coliform and enterococci bacteria, and to notify the public when levels exceeded state recreation standards. Marine water samples are collected along the Ketchikan coastline to monitor fecal waste contamination during the recreation season. Coastal marine water was monitored in 2017 from July through September, in 2018 from May through September, and is scheduled in 2019 from May through September.

What areas are being monitored?

In 2017, water samples were collected at nine coastal beach areas in Ketchikan including: Knudson Cove, Beacon Hill, South Point Higgins, Shull, Sunset, South Refuge Cove State Recreation Site, Thomas Basin, Seaport, Rotary Pool.

In 2018, water samples were collected at 12 coastal beach areas in Ketchikan including: Knudson Cove, Beacon Hill, South Point Higgins, Shull, Sunset, South Refuge Cove State Recreation Site, Thomas Basin, Seaport, Rotary Beach, Rotary Pool, Mountain Point Surprise Beach, Mountain Point Cultural Foods, Herring Cove.

In 2019, water samples are being collected at 11 coastal beach areas in Ketchikan including: Knudson Cove, South Point Higgins, Shull, Sunset, South Refuge Cove State Recreation Site, Thomas Basin, Seaport, Rotary Beach, Rotary Pool, Mountain Point Surprise Beach, Mountain Point Cultural Foods, Herring Cove.

Why were these locations chosen for monitoring?

Monitoring site selection for the Ketchikan Beach Program was based on information collected from the Alaska Beach Survey. The survey assessed the types of recreational activities and the level of use during the recreational season for beaches around Ketchikan.  Since the survey was conducted and sampling began, two additional locations, Mountain Point Coast area and Herring Cove have been identified as having high recreational use (e.g., scuba diving, marine foods harvesting).

What are the potential sources of bacteria?

Potential bacteria sources present along the Ketchikan coast include: boats in harbor and launch areas, cruise ships, private watercraft and ferries, individual septic tanks, private and/or public sewer treatment system outfall(s), public treatment system emergency bypasses, sewer line breaks, pet feces, and wildlife.

Is there evidence that cruise ships are a source of bacterial contamination?

Currently, there is no evidence of cruise ships being a source of bacterial contamination. Large cruise ships must operate with wastewater treatment technology designed to filter and disinfect wastewater. The general permit requires them to meet the raw shellfish water quality criteria at the point of discharge. There is no mixing zone for bacteria for large cruise ships.

Ocean Rangers check all wastewater treatment equipment as well as storage tanks and overboard discharge connections daily when onboard. No spills of sewage were reported in Ketchikan by Ocean Rangers or cruise ships.

Small cruise ships and ferries must have working wastewater treatment equipment and must minimize discharges near shore. They do not have permit limits but they have relatively low volumes of wastewater discharges.

How are local sewage outfall sources being regulated?

There are various local sewage outfall sources to Tongass Narrows from single family homes, common collector developments, and separate City and Borough wastewater treatment plants. The City wastewater treatment plant is regulated through an EPA-administered Clean Water Act National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. The Borough wastewater treatment plant and approximately eight common collectors are regulated through DEC-administered Alaska Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (APDES) permits. In addition to wastewater discharge permits, these facilities have likely also been evaluated through engineering plan review and approval by the DEC. Several common collector and single family homes with sewage outfalls to Tongass Narrows do exist that do not have a wastewater discharge permit; however, many of them have at least gone through engineering plan review. Although, there are likely single family home and common collector systems in the area that have not gone through plan review. DEC is evaluating these systems to determine best approaches to control the discharges, which may include plan review and/or wastewater discharge permits in the future.

What did the bacteria results say?

The 2017/2018 analytical tests for enterococci revealed that 11 of the 13 monitoring sites failed to meet the Alaska water quality standard (WQS) statistical threshold value (STV) criterion for recreation use, and 11 of the 13 sites failed to meet the Alaska WQS 30-day geometric mean criterion for recreation use.

The 2017/2018 analytical tests for fecal coliform bacteria revealed that 11 of the 13 of the monitoring sites failed to meet the Alaska WQS single sample criteria for aquaculture, seafood processing, and harvesting for consumption uses, while 10 of the 13 sites failed to meet the Alaska WQS geometric mean criterion for harvesting for consumption use.

In addition to bacteria testing, DEC conducted a more comprehensive source investigation of the pollution in 2018 using more microbial source testing for bacteria genetic identification. The human host marker and the gull host marker were detected at all 11 monitoring locations. Nine of the 11 monitoring locations also had dog host markers detected.

Is the water safe to swim in?

When elevated fecal bacteria levels are present in the marine water, precautionary measures are advised. DEC recommends people avoid exposure, such as swimming in the water, and wash after contact with the marine water. Commonly documented health issues from swimming in bacteria contaminated recreational waters include gastrointestinal illness, respiratory illnesses, skin rashes, and ear, eye, and wound infections.

Is the fish safe to eat?

When elevated fecal bacteria levels are present, precautionary measures are advised. DEC recommends rinsing fish with clean water after they have been harvested from the area. As always, people should cook seafood to a minimum internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit to destroy pathogens.

What are the plans for this summer?

DEC is

  1. Monitoring for a third year at 11 locations
  2. Expand identification of potential sources using DNA testing
  3. Notify the public when levels exceed water quality recreation criterion

What happens if there are elevated results?

DEC will continue to share the test results with the City of Ketchikan, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, and stakeholders. If the levels exceed state recreation standards, DEC will issue a press release and post it on the Alaska BEACH Program website https://dec.alaska.gov/water/water-quality/beach-program/. The City and Borough of Ketchikan may post an advisory sign at the affected beach. DEC will use social media to share the beach results. Weekly samples will continue to be collected through September, and the information shared on the Alaska BEACH Program website.

What happens next?

The monitoring program will help support the development of recommendations for best management practices and treatment of wastewater to reduce bacteria levels along the Ketchikan coastline. The data collected will then be compared to Alaska Water Quality Standards to determine if an impairment decision is warranted, and to document this decision in a future Integrated Report. Prior to making a decision on impairment, DEC will issue a public notice and comment period for the community, agencies, and local and tribal governments, and other interested stakeholders. 

In addition, DEC’s Alaska Clean Water Actions (ACWA) Grants Program plans to fund the development of a Watershed Management Plan which is designed to address the current pollution sources in Ketchikan and protect high quality waters. The plan evaluates stormwater management options for reducing the pollutants (especially bacteria) entering Ketchikan freshwater watersheds and coastal marine waters from known diverse point and nonpoint bacteria discharges and sources. The plan will follow the Environmental Protection Agency’s 9-element watershed planning process.

For Additional Program Information

Contact: Gretchen Pikul
Phone: 907-465-5023
Email: gretchen.pikul@alaska.gov
Website: https://dec.alaska.gov/water/water-quality

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