High levels of bacteria force officials to cancel triathlon swimming

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Participants of the YMCA Wrightsville Beach Sprint Triathlon run on September 25. The swim portion of the race was canceled after abnormally high levels of bacteria were detected in the Banks Channel. Photo: YMCA Wrightsville Beach

The swim portion of the YMCA Wrightsville Beach Sprint Triathlon has been canceled after state recreational water quality officials detected abnormally high levels of bacteria in the area.

The bacteria exceeded Environmental Protection Agency standards for what is safe for recreation, and warnings were posted warning against swimming at several locations along the Banks Canal, where the swim portion of the triathlon was expected to have. place.

The YMCA Wrightsville Beach Sprint Triathlon was established in 1979, making it the oldest triathlon on the East Coast. Canceling or shortening the event because of the bacteria levels has never happened in the 42-year history of triathlon.

A triathlon is a three-part endurance event comprising portions of running, cycling and swimming. Instead of canceling the September 25 event altogether, race officials gave participants the option of either postponing their registration for next year’s triathlon or participating in a duathlon – only the race stages and cycling race. The revised event route included a 2.4 mile run, leading to an 11.5 mile bike ride and culminating in a 5 km run, of approximately 3.1 miles.

Race director and owner of Without Limits, Tom Clifford, said the changes to the event came at the last minute.

“We decided that two hours before the packages were picked up,” Clifford said.

He was told of the high levels of bacteria the day before the race and had to decide whether or not to cancel the swim portion. If he hadn’t canceled it, the participants would run the risk of falling ill after the race.

“It’s not worth it,” Clifford said.

This year’s event had approximately 1,100 registered athletes, one of the highest registration rates in triathlon for almost a decade. Clifford estimates that around 800 to 900 people attended the revised event.

The group of bacteria detected was enterococci, which are found in the intestines of humans and animals. Enterococci are indicator bacteria. This means that their presence demonstrates a likelihood that other, more harmful bacteria are also present. Due to this indicative relationship, elevated levels of enterococci may result in the display of advisories warning against swimming.

On September 25, the YMCA Wrightsville Beach Sprint Triathlon swim, the course shown here, was canceled due to high levels of bacteria in the Banks Channel. Image: YMCA Wrightsville Beach Speed ​​Triathlon

According to Erin Bryan-Milush, environmental program supervisor in the Division of Marine Fisheries at the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, enterococci are recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency as the best thing to test in areas like the Banks Channel because of the salinity levels. .

“Enterococci live longer in areas with higher salinity, so this is a better indicator of public health,” said Bryan-Milush.

Heavily used recreational waters like the Banks Canal are tested for bacteria once a week to ensure levels are always within an acceptable range. After an exceptionally high test, those responsible for recreational water quality will revisit the site for another test.

Weekly tests are used to calculate a “logarithmic mean”, which indicates the trend of the waters. The average must be within an acceptable range before the NCDEQ lifts the opinion.

“This logarithmic mean tells a story,” said Bryan-Milush.

Bryan-Milush believes the high levels of enterococci were caused by heavy rains that fell over the area in the week leading up to the triathlon. Precipitation causes water to accumulate on impervious surfaces such as pavements, roads and sidewalks, and carries contaminants into water sources.

However, these are the first advisories that the NCDEQ has had to issue in the Banks Channel since 2016. Prior to 2016, there were an average of five to ten advisories per year during the swimming season, which runs from April to October. Bryan-Milush attributes the difference to pre-treatment measures the Town of Wrightsville Beach has taken to mitigate the effects of stormwater on local waters.

“They are one of the few beach communities that have taken action for remediation,” said Bryan-Milush.

The YMCA Wrightsville Beach Sprint Triathlon has never faced high levels of bacteria before, although Clifford has a habit of tailoring the event at the last minute. After Hurricane Florence in 2018, the only part of the event that was still doable was a short segment. And last year, a broken telephone pole necessitated a last-minute traffic redirect.

For Clifford, situations like these are a community lesson in adaptability and grace.

“There is always a risk with an outdoor event,” said Clifford. “We have to use the cards that are given to us. “


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