June 6, 2006
To the surprise of many, a
bacteria-source study conducted in Smith River
shows that birds and small mammals contribute the
most fecal matter to the watershed.
The usual suspects — cows and humans — appeared as
blips on the radar screen compared to the zeppelin
of birds, small animals, deer and elk.
“What they found out was, most of it is wildlife,”
said Bill Town, chairman of the Smith River
Watershed Bacteria Source Tracking Study and an
alternate on the Smith River Watershed Council.
Dogs and cats were no small contributors, but
ranchers and residents along Smith River say those
contributions can be easily mitigated as long as
septic tanks and cattle aren’t doing all the dirty
“If there isn’t a problem, then we can smile at
ourselves and say, ‘We’ve been doing a pretty damn
good job of protecting our watersheds,’” Town
Smith River residents hope the independent DNA
study, conducted by CH2M Hill, based in Denver,
will persuade the Oregon Department of
Environmental Quality to redirect some heat from
their livestock as the river’s main contaminators.
The study is still in draft form. CH2M Hill
officials expect its finalized report will help
DEQ and other public and private land agencies
determine where they should focus on treating
bacteria sources for watersheds.
Public meetings will be held Thursday in Roseburg
and North Bend for comments on the study.
Private landowners say the study shows that human
and domesticated animal bacterial additions to the
river are fairly benign. But DEQ officials say
those additions would have been higher if the
study was conducted during a year of normal
Bobbi Lindberg, a DEQ natural resource specialist
based in Eugene, said the 2004-05 winter received
only 58 percent of normal rainfall and the usual
runoff from the river’s surrounding lands didn’t
contribute to the bacteria study.
For the study, samples were taken from August 2004
to July 2005 on the second Tuesday of each month
at 13 stations, located on the Lower Smith River,
the North Fork of the Smith River, the Lower
Umpqua River and at Winchester Bay.
Lindberg said the agency was most interested in
data that would have been received during high
The DEQ has five river flow categories. The Smith
River’s flows are categorized by a water gauge
near Elkton that measures the rivers’ cubic feet
of water moving per second.
During the 2004-05 winter, Smith River typically
stayed at the middle river stage: midrange. It
registered at the next river stage — wet — only
six times, and reached high just three times.
Lindberg said the study contains little data from
wet flows and is void of data from the river’s
highest flow, when the river’s bacteria levels
reach their highest.
“We don’t really know what we’ll find during those
high-flow events,” Lindberg said.
Sherrill Doran, a CH2M Hill hydrologist who worked
on the study, said the study’s findings are
consistent with other tracking studies the agency
has conducted across the country, despite
| IF YOU GO ...
|WHAT: Findings of
Smith River Watershed Bacteria Source
WHEN: 10 a.m. to noon Thursday
WHERE: Room 216 of the Douglas County
Courthouse in Roseburg
WHY: Comments from the public meetings on
the report will be included in the study’s
SECOND MEETING: 6 p.m. Thursday, North
Bend Library meeting room, North Bend
INFORMATION: Bill Town, study chairman,
Paul Heberling, Umpqua Basin water quality
coordinator for DEQ in Roseburg, said he’s not
totally discounting the study’s evidence because
nothing can be done about the weather.
However, Heberling wishes the overwhelming amount
of evidence pointing toward birds as main bacteria
sources could have at least had two categories:
geese and cormorants, or seabirds.
Heberling said that people have told the DEQ for
years that more geese are staying in watersheds
throughout the year and are probably contributing
to higher bacteria levels.
Heberling said there’s also a large cormorant
community on an island in the Umpqua estuary near
Reedsport that is probably contributing a lot of
bacteria. He said if it could be identified, it
could probably be treated.
Heberling said he supported the study because he
thought it would have at least pinpointed geese
“I felt we were going to get that kind of
analysis,” he said.
The Smith River Watershed Bacteria Source Tracking
Study began after the DEQ reported to Smith River
residents that bacteria levels on the Smith River
during high flows would have to be cut by 50
Lindberg said a 2001 DEQ study on the Smith River
during a heavy winter rainstorm showed the river
exceeded its Total Maximum Daily Load for
The TMDLs were partly created to protect shellfish
on the Oregon Coast. Shellfish harvesting is
considered a recreational activity that brings
revenue to Oregon coastal communities, but it is
often closed due to high bacteria levels.
Smith River Watershed Council members say they
couldn’t think of any large, unnatural contaminant
sources, so it investigated bacteria sourcing and
found DNA testing to be the most reliable, yet
The budget for the DNA project reached $242,245.
It was partly funded by state and federal
agencies, with the Smith River Watershed Council
working 18 percent of the budget with “in-kind”
labor and equipment.
Comments from state and federal agency officials
and the public at Thursday’s meetings will be
included in the study’s final report.
Town said even though the study has shown bacteria
contributions from human activity are minor, thus
far, “there’s still room for improvement.”
• You can reach reporter Adam Pearson at 957-4213
or by e-mail at