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.
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.”
River is not unsafe
The wakeboarding event was not directly connected to the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation, which promotes recreational activities on the river. But Mike Knopp, the foundation's executive director, said this is an issue that all urban waterways face, and the river is not unsafe.
“There should be no concern about people getting harmed or sick by coming down and participating in activities,” Knopp said. “The city took the right measures with the wakeboarding event in being proactive, knowing that we had a big rainfall event. Unfortunately, it's just sort of bad luck that it happened before an event that involves people in the water.”
The standards for water quality in the river were established in consultation with health officials, and the river usually tests well within those standards except after rain storms, Yager said.
Swimming is not allowed in the river except for special events with a permit. Events like rowing and kayaking, or events with powered boats, are the most common on the river and can take place when the bacteria level is too high for swimmers.
Wakeboarders ride on
Last week's event was Thursday through Saturday and featured teams of athletes from 14 universities, including Oklahoma State University and athletes from as far away as California and Wisconsin, Skeen said. Most of the participants were already in town when Skeen and the city made the joint decision not to hold the event on the Oklahoma River, which both Skeen and Yager said was “in the best interest of the athletes.”
Skeen moved his event to the Guthrie Golf and Country Club.
Still, Skeen said he thinks the city should study whether wakeboarding and other events that involve contact with the water should be allowed, because wakeboarders don't spend as much time in the water as swimmers who breathe with open mouths on the water's surface.
“We don't ingest the water like the triathlon people do,” he said.
Some strains of E. coli can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illnesses, pneumonia and other maladies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The city's efforts to monitor pollutants in the river and combat dirty runoff include sampling water in the river and its tributaries, public outreach regarding pet waste, providing bags for pet waste along the river for dog walkers, and code enforcement employees looking for illegal dumping activity and citing those responsible, Yager said.