Bacteria in Oklahoma River prompts move for Oklahoma City wakeboarding event

High levels of E. coli bacteria last week in the Oklahoma River in downtown Oklahoma City prompted a wakeboarding event to move to a Guthrie country club, officials said. Rain last week was the likely cause, sweeping contaminated runoff into the river.
BY MICHAEL KIMBALL mkimball@opubco.com Published: June 7, 2012
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Heavy rains last week are blamed for dumping runoff water with an elevated level of bacteria into the Oklahoma River, prompting organizers to move a wakeboarding competition to Guthrie.

The E. coli bacteria level in the Oklahoma River on May 30 was nearly 23 times higher than the level the Oklahoma City allows for events in the river that require body contact with the water, according to testing documents provided by the city. The water quality soon returned to acceptable levels, but not before the event moved.

Roger Skeen, of Skeen Skiing Productions, who organized the USA Collegiate Nationals wakeboarding event, chalked it up to bad luck in the form of the thunderstorms. He said he has held an event on the Oklahoma River almost every year since 2006, and hopes to do so again.

“We're already talking to them about hosting it again next year,” Skeen said.

Better testing

The strict water testing on the river and official guidelines on what is an acceptable level of bacteria stem from a triathlon in 2009, during which about four dozen athletes became ill because of E. coli in the water. Officials with the city, Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation, state Environmental Quality Department, the Oklahoma City-County Health Department and Oklahoma Water Resources Board met to establish the guidelines and testing procedures.

The goal was to establish testing that could prevent what happened during the triathlon from happening again by keeping the athletes out of the water in the first place, city spokeswoman Kristy Yager said. That's what happened last week.

The city uses a measurement of bacteria present in water called a “colony forming unit.” If the water has 407 units or more for every 100 milliliters of water, events with swimming and other body contact with the water aren't allowed.

The level in the Oklahoma River on May 29 was 26 units per 100 milliliters, city records show. By May 31, it spiked to 9,208 units. It dipped back to 364 units by the next day.

Runoff usually elevates the level of bacteria in any body of water because of the many sources of contamination on land, such as pet waste and commercial farming activities, that get washed into storm drains and tributaries.

The Oklahoma River is a renamed portion of the North Canadian River in Oklahoma City consisting of three “river lakes,” formed by dams and fed by storm drains and tributaries.

“The bacteria level is typically out of the normal level after a heavy rain, and sometimes the (Oklahoma) River can recover very, very quickly,” Yager said. “In this case, it did. It doesn't have a high level of bacteria in it all year round.”

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