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State warns of booming bacteria levels on Kenai River beaches

Laurel Andrews
Dipnetters catch sockeye salmon at the mouth of the Kenai River in July 2012. On Wednesday, the state Department of Environmental Conservation warned that bacteria levels on the Kenai River beaches were two times the state's standards for recreational waters. Loren Holmes photo

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation on Wednesday issued an advisory for elevated bacteria levels that could harm humans at Southcentral’s popular salmon dipnetting site on the Kenai River.

Samples collected on July 9 and Sunday showed enterococci and fecal coliform bacteria at double the state standards for recreational water, Alaska DEC project manager Timothy Stevens said.

Stevens said the elevated levels were detected in samples from the south beach of the Kenai River, but that the DEC was advising people recreating on both the north and south beaches to take precautions in order to minimize the risk of illness.

“If one of the beaches has elevated levels, everybody using the beaches down there should take elevated precautions,” Stevens said.

Enterococci or fecal coliform bacteria can cause stomachaches, diarrhea and eye, ear and skin infections, Stevens wrote in the press release.

“Don’t drink the water; shower or rinse off after being in contact with the water, and cook all seafood to a minimum internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit to destroy pathogens,” the release advises.

Personal use dipnetting began at the Kenai River on July 10 and ends July 31, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website. Bacteria levels were similarly elevated last summer on the Kenai River beaches, just days before dipnetters descended on the river.

Both types of bacteria can come from any warm-blooded animal, the release states, and the reason for the currently elevated levels of bacteria is unknown. However, 2012 tests indicated that the majority of the bacteria came from birds, namely seagulls, Stevens said. A small percentage of the bacteria was shown to originate from humans and dogs in 2012.

The state will continue to sample the water twice weekly through August, Stevens said. Come September, the state will have received new test results that will determine the source of the elevated bacteria levels.

The beach sampling program is being funded and implemented by the DEC with the cooperation of the City of Kenai.