How safe are the waters that thousands of people swim in everyday around the Gorge?
Last month, water quality tests conducted by a local organization, Columbia Riverkeeper, detected high levels of E.coli bacteria at the Event Site in Hood River.
E. coli is commonly found in the lower intestine of warm-blooded organisms and strains are often harmless, but some cases of E. coli have caused its hosts to become sick.
When E. coli is high in the Columbia, the Columbia Riverkeeper organization recommends avoiding swallowing water, and recommends washing hands before eating and limiting water contact at the specific site until bacteria levels are back within safe limits.
“We believe that clean water is a right and all people deserve the opportunity to swim and fish without fear of getting sick,” said Liz Terhaar, the communications director at Columbia Riverkeeper.
To that end, Columbia Riverkeeper has created “Swim Guide,” a mobile app and website.
Columbia Riverkeeper and its volunteers run weekly water quality tests from the Hood River and the mainstem Columbia at the Hood River Waterfront Park Swim Beach, Event Site, Outer Hook and Inner Hook. Other locations across the Pacific Northwest are examined monthly or twice-monthly.
These findings are then transferred over to the Swim Guide, “giving people the confidence to make their own decision when deciding to go out and use the waters in our area,” said Lorri Epstein, the water quality director at Columbia Riverkeeper. “When E. coli levels are high, we go to the port and they take action by putting up signs for individuals to be cautious of that waters E. coli level.”
On the Swim Guide application and website, there’s information about current E. coli levels of surrounding waters, locations of new beaches and directions to new swim spots.
“The worst-case scenario is having people not use the water because they ‘don’t know’ about the current safety of the water (and) this application and website erases all that uncertainty,” said Epstein. “If you see the water is not safe, then the power is put into the hands of the individual to either use or not use that water.”
Swim Guide has gone from 14,000 users total in 2011 to 15,000 users a day this summer.
More than 2 million people around the world rely on Swim Guide to connect with the water and protect their health from contamination.
“The application gives you confidence to make your own choice,” said Epstein. “This application and the talk about E. coli in our waters is not to scare people, we instead want people to be confident when they go out into the waters that this area has to offer.”
Read more about Swim Guide on Columbia Riverkeeper’s website, and check out the beaches across the Pacific Northwest that the organization is monitoring at www.theswimguide.org/affiliates/columbia-riverkeeper.