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E. Coli contamination a hidden danger in the Virgin River

E. Coli contamination is 'off the chart' in Zion National park's Narrows

Published: Saturday, Oct. 6 2012 8:31 p.m. MDT

ZION NATIONAL PARK — On any given day during the height of the summer visitor season, thousands of people wade and play in the Virgin River at the Narrows in Utah's most popular national park.

Hardy adventurers, too, seek the "other worldly" experience by making the complete 16-mile trek through the Narrows, wading through the rushing water and picking their way over boulders and rocks to gaze at the spectacular sandstone scenery.

"We think a national park where people play in the water is pretty darn important," said Dave Sharrow, hydrologist for Zion National Park.

But there's a threat here, and it has nothing to do with falling rocks or narrow terrain. Levels of E. coli contamination in the river are "off the chart" and far exceed state water quality standards.

That's prompted park officials to issue warnings along with permits to backcountry hikers to avoid contact with the water as much as possible.

"We are concerned that levels of E. coli bacteria that we are finding in the river exceed the state standard for swimming-type recreation," Sharrow said. "And when that happens, the risk of coming down with a disease associated with playing in that water is too high. We would like to protect visitors and get the water cleaned up to the point where we meet the standard."

Walt Baker, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality, said three years of testing from 800 water samples detail levels of E. coli contamination that are "significant and a concern," with rolling averages showing high levels 90 percent of the time.

Amy Dickey, environmental scientist with the state Division of Water Quality, said she's not aware of any reports of people getting sick from the contamination, but Environmental Protection Agency standards say with levels that high, eight out of every 1,000 are at risk.

"Sometimes it won't show up for several days," Dickey said, "and people by then may write it off as the flu."

The culprit is feces — from wildlife, people and from cattle that graze upstream on Bureau of Land Management property and private lands.

The BLM, Division of Water Quality and the Utah Farm Bureau all play a role in solving the problem and will meet next week in Cedar City to search for solutions.

"It is a puzzle. We've put a lot of time and resources into studying the problem," Dickey said.

"I get asked a lot of times, 'Who cares? It is out in the middle of nowhere.' But it is our job to take a closer look, and it is a problem when it is upstream of a national park, where thousands of people are in the water recreating and more who spend the night in the Narrows," she said.

At the bottom end of the Narrows at the riverside walk, there is no limitation on the number of people who can jump in the water, Sharrow said.

"We have documented 2,000 a day, and that was before we had our shuttle buses and parking was limited," he said. "It is probably significantly higher than that. There are a lot of people playing in the water."

The park does limit the number of participants who make the daylong or overnight trek all the way through the Narrows, Sharrow said, curtailing the number of permits issued at any given time.

Still, the impacts go on all season long, with an estimated 5,000 people who go through the Narrows each year.

Upstream, the BLM issues grazing leases to ranchers on land northeast of the park, and private land is also home to cattle.

Sharrow said flood irrigation practices that ultimately wash manure into the river are suspected to be at the root of the contamination, but he said the area is rife with wildlife and, downstream, with people.

"There's a whole lot of animals out there pooping," he said.

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