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Greg Channing and his dog, Bella, fly fish in Boulder Creek near the Boulder Public Library on December 27, 2019. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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University of Colorado students on Independence Day might not be the only ones “impaired” in Boulder’s Eben G. Fine Park come July.

State officials last month designated a new, and popular, stretch of Boulder Creek from the mouth of Boulder Canyon through the park as “impaired” due to elevated levels of E. coli.

But tubers, swimmers, fishermen and women will still likely be able to take a dip this summer if they wish.

The new designation by the state for the creek’s west Boulder stretch adds to the existing impairment of the waterway from 13th Street east to its confluence with South Boulder Creek, according to Colorado Water Quality Control Division spokesperson Ian Dickson.

“The stretch above the canyon mouth also showed some elevated levels and warrants further monitoring,” Dickson said in an email to the Camera. “… Determining that a water body is impaired initiates steps toward identifying the source of the impairment so the state and community can make progress toward restoring water quality.”

The determination was made based on a “robust” data set of measurements for the E. coli bacteria, Dickson said.

“Every two years, the (state health) department works with the (Water Quality Control) Commission to examine water quality data and identify impaired waters,” Dickson said. “… The department thanks city of Boulder for this information, and we encourage communities to continue to send data so we can work together to protect the environment.”

Boulder spokesperson Meghan Wilson said the city is working on a communication strategy for informing residents and potential creek users of the newly designated impaired stretch of creek. But unlike a swimming beach at a reservoir or other body of water, local officials have little ability to restrict human access to a stream like Boulder Creek, Wilson said.

“We are working actively to shore up the communication plan that will make what we know more visible to the public,” Wilson said, adding new signage warning of the state’s designation and other dissemination methods could be discussed. “We certainly understand the community’s concerns and the desire to be educated.”

Individuals will still be able to decide for themselves whether to enter the creek, though.

“We want people to know what some potential risks might be and take the appropriate precautions,” Wilson said, urging caution to people with open wounds.

“If you want to swim in any of Colorado’s rivers, lakes or creeks, we recommend checking with the local city or county to see if that water is safe for swimming — not just from a water quality standpoint but from a safety standpoint,” Dickson said. “We also recommend waiting for a couple of days to swim after a rain event because rain or any other precipitation can increase E.coli levels.”

Wilson also said the condition and contents of Boulder Creek may not have changed significantly to cause the impairment level, and that the designation process is led by the state.

“We’re aware that the methodology has changed in terms of designating stream segments as impaired,” Wilson said. “My understanding is the condition has not changed rather how they are designated has changed.”

Dickson was unable to immediately confirm or deny whether that is the case Wednesday afternoon.

But earlier in the week, Dickson did offer a response to Boulder Waterkeeper data the advocacy group used to assert there is a that there is a “human waste footprint” to the detected E. coli.

E. coli is a bacterial marker for fecal pollution, which lives in the intestines of humans, wildlife, cattle and dogs, but is not always harmful to humans. However, one strand, known as 0157:H7, can cause abdominal cramps, diarrhea, vomiting and even life-threatening conditions.

CU has denied it is responsible for making illicit discharges and defended its practices related to creek health in the face of Boulder Waterkeeper spokesman Art Hirsch, a retired environmental engineer, suspecting the school for hurting Boulder Creek’s quality.

State officials looked into data on the creek provided by Hirsch, Dickson said, and found it to be inconclusive as to whether it showed evidence of human waste.

“The department also conducted additional research and was not able to identify any established benchmark for when these bacteria levels would be considered an indicator of illicit discharges or other uncontrolled pollutant sources,” Dickson said.

“Using this type of data is relatively new and is not considered standard practice in implementing programs to control bacteria in stormwater collection systems. Many more tests would be required to better determine if that level of bacteria is low at that outfall compared to other water source locations (streams, lakes, other outfalls, etc.) and how that might change over a period of time and with different weather conditions.”

Attempts to reach Hirsch for comment Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Dickson said Boulder Waterkeeper also provided E. coli data from a lab, but the samples exceeded the time between collection and delivery to the lab for analysis, Dickson said, meaning they could only be examined for the presence or absence of the bacteria, but not an estimate of how much there is.

“The division was not able to confirm that all of the necessary sampling methods, like holding time, were followed by Boulder Waterkeeper for the human bacteria indicator to ensure accurate analysis,” Dickson said. “The lab used the EPA-approved method to identify whether there is human fecal pollution.

“The one sample taken does not provide conclusive evidence that human source bacteria were present. The strain of bacteria the lab tested for could also come from other animals, such as raccoons and geese. Again, the lab indicated more data is needed to determine whether the strain is from humans versus other animals. At this time, even with these E.coli and human fecal bacterial levels, there is no indicator of an illicit discharge or other noncompliance with the university’s permit.”

Staff writer Charlie Brennan contributed reporting.

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