If cruise ships aren’t behind Ketchikan’s beach bacteria problem, what is?

A beach under cloudy skies with driftwood and spruce treees on a small island in the background
Rotary Beach south of Saxman is also called Bugge’s Beach. It’s one of only two tested beaches in the Ketchikan area that regulators say shouldn’t be included on the EPA’s impaired waters list. (KRBD)

For the fourth year in a row, weekly summer water quality tests show that most Ketchikan beaches have elevated levels of bacteria that could make people sick. That happened this year even without dozens of cruise ships sailing through the Inside Passage and discharging wastewater.

Ketchikan’s federally-recognized tribe has been working with Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation to monitor fecal coliform and enterococci bacteria levels at Ketchikan’s beaches since 2017.

But Meredith Pochardt of the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition told attendees at a recent public meeting that this year was different.

“2020 gave us a really unique opportunity to monitor for bacteria around Ketchikan without cruise ships,” she said. “And we’re still seeing pretty elevated levels.”

At some sites, bacteria levels were higher than they’ve ever been. Others, like the city’s Thomas Basin harbor, saw improvements that regulators credit to repaired sewer line.

“That just opens up more questions and hopefully some more dialogue,” Pochardt said.

All of Ketchikan’s beaches exceeded state standards for fecal coliform bacteria at least once in the summer of 2020. (Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition)

That cruise ships don’t appear to be contributing to Ketchikan’s beach bacteria problem isn’t as surprising a conclusion as it might seem.

Fecal coliform bacteria levels are measured in colony-forming units per 100 milliliters — in simple terms, you take a water sample, filter out the bacteria, drop it onto a petri dish, and count how many bacteria colonies form. Do some math, and you get the standard unit for fecal coliform bacteria: CFU per 100 ml.

Cruise ships’ wastewater has to average less than 14 CFU per 100 ml. DEC’s Gretchen Augat put that in perspective.

“That’s extremely low, extremely safe. It is what we use as our most stringent fecal coliform criteria in the state,” Augat said at the meeting.

So, in theory, you could safely swim right next to cruise ships’ wastewater pipes. You could harvest mussels and clams and eat them raw, assuming they’re not tainted by other toxins. That 14 CFU number? That’s less bacteria than is allowed in Ketchikan’s drinking water reservoirs. (That “raw water” is chemically treated before it’s pumped to taps around town.)

Cruise ships are able to achieve those low bacteria levels because they have advanced treatment systems onboard. But Ketchikan’s onshore wastewater treatment plants are far less effective.

The Mountain Point wastewater treatment plant run by Ketchikan’s borough is allowed to put out more than 10 times as much as cruise ship systems. DEC’s Augat told Alaska’s Energy Desk septic systems are held to a similar standard.

And then there’s the city-run Charcoal Point wastewater plant.

“On a daily level, the Charcoal Point [plant] is allowed to, or permitted to discharge 1.5 million CFU,” Pochardt said.

That’s the maximum limit for a day. Over a month, it’s required to average no more than 1 million CFU per 100 ml — more than 70,000 times the limit for cruise ships.

The plant is allowed to put out that much bacteria because it’s exempt from some requirements of the federal Clean Water Act. It’s only required to do what’s called “primary” wastewater treatment: Essentially, letting solids settle out of the water before shooting it into the sea. Ketchikan’s city-run plant is not required to do “secondary” treatment, which uses bacteria to break down waste products and generally results in cleaner water.

It’s not an outlier in Southeast Alaska: Wastewater facilities in WrangellPetersburgSitkaHaines and Skagway have similar permits and are allowed to put out similarly high concentrations of fecal coliform bacteria.

But Pochardt said DEC and the watershed coalition aren’t pointing fingers.

“One of the important things to point out is we don’t know, and we can’t currently tell the magnitude of each source’s contribution to the bacteria levels that we’re seeing at the sampling locations,” Pochardt said.

A two-mile swath of the Tongass Narrows serves to dilute the flows from Ketchikan’s wastewater treatment plant. Samples taken by the city of Ketchikan and a DEC contractor from within and around the mixing zone met state bacteria standards in 2020. (Alaska DEC graphic)

She said leaky septic tanks, pet waste, small boat harbors and private sewer systems are other potential sources for bacteria.

And there’s reason to believe Charcoal Point isn’t the problem. The city of Ketchikan tracks the bacteria levels in and around the two-mile “mixing zone” near the plant, and for at least the past year, bacteria have stayed below state standards. And a separate water quality study sponsored by DEC also found low levels of bacteria near the sewer plant. The only location that tested above standards in that study was a small boat harbor: Thomas Basin. While it’s not clear where the bacteria are coming from, environmental regulators are sounding the alarm. DEC recommends that all of the Ketchikan beaches tested, except for popular Rotary Beach and Mountain Point Surprise Beach, be included on the EPA’s “impaired waters” list. That would require the state to come up with a plan to address the bacteria problem. DEC’s Chandra McGee explained at another recent public meeting.

“We’ll be working with the community on a watershed plan and implementing actions from that plan to hopefully bring all of these beaches into compliance with water quality standards in the future,” she said. Environmental regulators are seeking comments on the decision to list Ketchikan’s beaches as impaired.

And while DEC has monitored Ketchikan’s beaches since 2017, it’s not stopping there. Monitors sampled waters all over the state this summer, taking advantage of low cruise ship traffic to establish a baseline, said DEC Environmental Program Specialist Brock Tabor.

“We’re specifically looking for pollutants. A couple different things: We’re looking at bacteria concentrations, which is of great interest to the public. We’re also looking at selected metals that we identified to be associated with cruise ship discharges in the past,” Tabor told Alaska’s Energy Desk.

The study’s data is preliminary, but it found high levels of bacteria near small boat harbors around the state — Juneau, Wrangell, Petersburg, Homer, Valdez and, of course, Ketchikan. And in Seward and Nome, monitors found elevated levels near the cities’ commercial and cruise ship docks.

That study also found high levels of dissolved copper and nickel at several sites in Knik Arm near Anchorage. Those can be toxic to marine life.

Tabor said DEC plans to continue water sampling in 2021.

This story was produced as part of a collaboration between KRBD and Alaska’s Energy Desk.

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