Elevated E. coli levels are, unfortunately, not unheard of in Oak Creek – whether it be from a sewage spill like the one earlier this summer, or because of crowded recreation spots where humans and other animals leave behind waste.
Twenty years ago, a study by researchers at Northern Arizona University found that about 30% of E. coli bacteria in Oak Creek was from racoons – attracted to the creek by food and trash left by visitors. Human feces was another significant source of contamination – especially in summer – with deer, elk and horses also contributing to bacterial levels.
But over the last two decades recreational activity along Oak Creek has risen significantly. Now biologists and volunteer stewards are finding human and pet waste along the stream much more often. It not only poses a possible threat to public health – but also to species like the threatened narrow-headed garter snake and other animals that live along the creek.
So, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality is partnering with five local non-profits, including the Oak Creek Watershed Council and the National Forest Foundation to take action. That includes closing undesignated bathroom-break stops along Highway 89, installing dozens of pet waste clean-up stations and rehabilitating trails to reduce direct sediment run-off into Oak Creek.
The ADEQ’s Arizona Water Watch team trains volunteer citizen scientists to regularly conduct water sampling and trash pick-up projects.