Caution in the creeks

Photo by Jason Cassidy

Officials urge people to limit swimming in creeks within and downstream from the Camp Fire burn zone, as the water is not safe for drinking.

When it rains, it pours. And the Camp Fire just keeps on pouring. The latest byproduct? Waterways testing positive for heavy metals, from aluminum to selenium, as well as chemical contaminants. And the most recent test results, released last month, show unhealthy levels of both throughout the county, primarily in Paradise and nearby creeks.

What that means for people—particularly in the burn zone—is that swimming could be dangerous, as could drinking water that comes from shallow wells.

“We always want to caution folks—and adults are one thing, but small children and infants tend to drink more when they’re swimming,” said Clint Snyder, assistant executive officer for the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. “We always want to make sure that people know when there are risks associated with swimming. Drinking that water or ingesting it can create problems. We urge an overabundance of caution until things start to stabilize in that area.”

The root of the problem stems from the stuff that burned during the Camp Fire—things like cars and televisions and gas stations—that aren’t meant to be burned. Add to that a few heavy rains and a natural downslope, and the debris made its way into the water.

“The latest samples were taken … following a full five-day storm event,” Snyder said. Specifically, they were taken March 27. “So we had saturated soil conditions, which facilitated overland flow—it was hitting that burn material and running off into surface waters.”

What’s in those surface waters now is cause for concern: elevated levels of aluminum, antimony, arsenic, cadmium, iron, lead, manganese, mercury and selenium. Clear Creek in Paradise is bearing the brunt of it—for instance, the recommended maximum contaminant level (MCL) of aluminum in drinking water is 1,000 parts per billion and Clear Creek’s level is 2,070 ppb; the MCL for iron is 300 ppb; Clear Creek’s level is 1,440 ppb.

The water board, cooperating with the state Department of Water Resources and the California Department of Transportation, took samples in nine spots along creeks that it regularly monitors: In addition to Clear Creek, those include Butte Creek (two spots), Little Butte Creek, Hamlin Creek, Dry Creek (two spots) and Little Dry Creek. All but Butte and Little Butte showed higher than recommended levels of most of the aforementioned metals.

When tested for a host of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, all of the creeks showed higher than recommended levels of eight different compounds that could cause adverse health effects.

“Back in the day, folks placed really shallow wells in … the gravel next to the creeks,” Snyder said. “The concentrations [of contaminants] we’re seeing in the surface waters has the potential to migrate into those wells.”

In response to the tests, the water board issued a press release April 24 saying, “Homeowners with shallow wells along Butte Creek and Little Butte Creek should review their well construction details and consider testing their well water if they have not already done so.”

Butte County offers advice for private well owners on, but mostly regarding bacteria. While an advisory attached to those guidelines says E. coli has been detected in the water, the most recent water board test results came back negative for that bacteria in all creeks. Likewise, all were negative for coliform, another bacteria. It recommends testing for benzene if there were any burnt plastics in or near the well and for heavy metals if it is near a creek or stream.

“Because of the magnitude of the Camp Fire damage, the science for sampling and testing contaminated water for commercial use and for private wells is still being developed,” said Lisa Almaguerr, spokeswoman for the county’s Public Health Department.

While the March results are cause for caution and concern, Snyder says he anticipates the next round of testing—planned for this month—will yield lower levels of contamination. As water flows from higher elevations through the burn zone, it’s naturally flushing the hazardous elements away. Before those results are known, however, which could be two to three weeks from now, he urges everyone—especially families with small children—to limit swimming downstream and within the Camp Fire burn zone and to test their shallow wells.

“The biggest thing is caution at this point in time,” he said. “This is a situation that’s not common. Right now, it’s just caution, caution, caution. And as for drinking water, folks should never be drinking untreated surface water.”