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State waterways reportedly filled with foul bacteria

Possible result of rising homeless population

Anna Almendrala Kaiser Health News | 1/10/2020, midnight
President Donald Trump, a self-described germophobe, has made no..

President Donald Trump, a self-described germophobe, has made no secret of his disgust with California’s growing homeless problem, which he has called a “disgrace” and “inappropriate” and equated to “living in hell.”

“We should all work together to clean up these hazardous waste and homeless sites before the whole city rots away,” Trump tweeted about San Francisco on Oct. 26. “Very bad and dangerous conditions, also severely impacting the Pacific Ocean and water supply.”

San Francisco officials were quick to dispute Trump’s claims. But some of California’s most prized rivers, beaches and streams are contaminated with levels of fecal bacteria that exceed state limits, threatening kayakers, swimmers - and the state’s reputation as a bastion of environmental protection.

The presence of fecal bacteria in water is usually the result of problems with sewer systems and septic tanks. But water quality officials agree that the source of at least some of the fecal bacteria is California’s growing homeless population, most of whom don’t have reliable access to toilets.

“I’ve carried 5-gallon buckets that were unambiguously being used as toilets,” said David Gibson, executive officer of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, in describing his experience cleaning up homeless encampments. “They were taking it to the San Diego River, dumping it there, and rinsing it out there.”

Fecal contamination of waterways is a widespread problem and becoming more urgent in states with large homeless populations. In Seattle, homeless people living in RVs are accused of dumping raw sewage straight into storm drains, which flows directly to local waterways. In Oregon, workers cleaning up homeless camps along the Willamette River in Eugene routinely find feces and needles.

California has the largest homeless population in the nation, estimated at more than 151,000 people in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. About 72 percent of the state’s homeless slept outside or in cars rather than in shelters or temporary housing.

The Trump administration has fixated on California’s homeless population in particular as a potent source of pollution.

In addition to Trump’s tweets, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sept. 26 alleging that the state’s lack of urgency on homelessness threatens public health by polluting nearby water with untreated human waste. It then issued a notice to San Francisco accusing it of violating the federal Clean Water Act.

Jared Blumenfeld, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, responded by accusing the federal EPA of retreating on clean water protection, and called the administration’s focus on the environmental impact of homelessness “sensationalized” and “misguided.”

But concerns extend beyond the Trump administration. A record number of Californians-about one in four persons-believe homelessness and housing is the top issue facing the state today, up from 1 percent in 1999, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

When it comes to water, scientists look for E. coli and other bacteria to determine levels of fecal contamination. While E. coli is present in both human and animal feces, human fecal contamination is particularly dangerous because it can transmit diseases that affect people, including hepatitis A and cholera.