Bacteria

Citizen Science Pathogen Monitoring in the NY/NJ Harbor Estuary Watershed

By Jim Ferretti

NY/NJ Baykeeper Lab

NY/NJ Baykeeper Lab

What’s the deal with bacteria?
Bacteria (along with soil erosion/runoff, and nutrients including nitrogen and phosphorus) are the leading types of pollution in our nation’s waterways. Pathogenic, or disease-causing microorganisms are associated with fecal waste and can cause a variety of diseases (typhoid, cholera, Cryptosporosis, etc) either through ingestion/contact with contaminated water or ingestion of shellfish. Not all bacteria are harmful (yogurt contains live bacteria cultures), but the presence of some indicator bacteria such as fecal coliforms and enterococci are a clue that potentially more harmful bacteria and viruses may be present in the water as well.

There are many different types of general pathogens that are dangerous to humans, including bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. Measuring all of these potential harmful organisms is not practical, cost effective, and measuring methods are often complicated. Instead, specific surrogate bacteria (i.e., Fecal Coliforms, E. coli, and Enterococcus sp) that can be cultured or detected easily and can be related to the risk of human illness are used as “indicator” bacteria, because their presence indicates that fecal contamination may have occurred. The higher the number of indicator bacteria would increase the risk of finding increasingly more harmful assemblages of more harmful types of organisms in the water.

Common sources of bacteria in surface waters are from combined sewers (which can overflow in a rainstorm and dump untreated sewage directly into our waters) and runoff of animal waste (including wild animal droppings) from farmland and city streets.

Indicator Bacteria and Citizen Science
During the summer months, bacteria concentrations are measured at least once a week at most of our New Jersey and New York bathing beaches. There are many other waterways that are used for boating, fishing and even swimming that are also susceptible to bacterial contamination. Citizen scientists offer a great resource to fill data gaps, produce data that will be usable by the states for assessment purposes, engage their community and raise awareness of potential environmental issues.

There are a few common types of laboratory tests that are performed to measure bacteria, such as growing them on a filter, growing them in test tubes, or growing them in special trays until a color endpoint is observed. Many of these tests are outside the technical expertise of many citizen science groups.

Site Map of the NY/NJ Harbor Watershed Area used for the Citizen Science Pathogen Study

Site Map of the NY/NJ Harbor Watershed Area used for the Citizen Science Pathogen Study

The EPA has been involved in Citizen Science since 1988 (formally called Volunteer Monitoring). The number of Citizen Science groups across the nation and particularly in our region has risen sharply in recent years. In an effort to empower citizens in their community through collection of high quality data, the EPA has recently been involved in a technical role in a Citizen Science Pathogen (Bacteria) Study involving two citizen science groups from New York (Bronx River Alliance and Sparkill Creek Watershed Alliance) and two from New Jersey (Friends of the Bonsal Preserve and the NY/NJ Baykeeper). The goal of this grant based program from the Harbor Estuary Program and administered through the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission was to train citizen science groups, assist them in preparation of a Quality Assurance Project Plan (QAPP) or a plan that details all facets of their study, provide equipment and testing guidance manuals, perform on-site lab and field assessments, and provide a means to enter data into the national water quality data repository, WQX (formerly STORET).

Citizen Science Equipment Loan Program
Not only is this project important to the communities that are involved, this effort has provided the framework for future citizen science groups to conduct similar projects. Citizen scientists and communities may use the existing Quality Assurance Project Plan, Field and Lab Data Sheets, Excel spreadsheets for reporting, and technical guidance documents for sampling and analysis from this project that can be readily modified to fit their own pathogen monitoring program.

Another major hurdle for many citizen based science groups is the cost of equipment needed to collect the data. The cost for the lab equipment for a group to start a pathogen and water quality program similar to the one describe here is approximately $10,000. This cost is prohibitive to many citizen science groups so EPA is in the process of establishing an equipment loan program. The equipment loan program will offer citizen science organizations the opportunity to conduct water quality and/or pathogen studies with the benefit of borrowing on a short term basis (three to four months) lab equipment (incubators and sealers) and field equipment (water quality parameter meters and GPS units) plus the available technical documents (QAPP, testing guidance, and datasheets). Minus the cost of equipment, the actual per test cost for measuring bacteria is approximately $5-6 per sample.

So, prepare your QAPP, enroll in the equipment loan program, and have your group get out there and monitor!

About the Author: Jim Ferretti is a team leader for the Sanitary Chemistry and Biology Team for the Laboratory Branch in the EPA’s Division of Environmental Science and Assessment. He has a Master’s Degree in Environmental Science from Rutgers University and a BS Degree in Water Analysis Technology from California University of PA. Jim has a diversified background in environmental studies and biological laboratory testing. He has been employed at the EPA since 1990, starting out in the water program in headquarters and moving to New Jersey in 1992.

 

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Creepy Crawlies

By Regina Klepikow

It is almost that time of year when all of Mother Nature invades your space and creeps you out.  It is funny how we as humans have fears of small insects and spiders.  Most of us are quick to jump on a chair or run out of a room with the reflexes of The Six Million Dollar Man when we spot a spider on the wall or see a beetle scurry across the floor.  My daughter and my niece have a thing where they crouch down and move their hands in such a fashion that they try to resemble a bug of some sort; all while running around sporadically, wiggling their fingers and screaming “Creepy crawlies… creepy crawlies… creepy crawlies everywhere” repeatedly.  It is a hilarious sight to see.

All this has begged the question, “Why are we scared of things we can see and not so scared of things we cannot see?” I am positive that there are many “creepy crawlies” out there that we cannot see that we should be worried about. Do not get me wrong, I am not trying to freak anyone out but it is a cause for concern. We all get cautious when we here about someone having the flu and we have to work alongside them. We all know that when cold and flu season come around that we have to pay more attention to our actions and wash our hands or use more sanitizer. We all know that preparing and cooking meat at a certain temperature is necessary in order to keep from acquiring a food borne illness. I am a moderate germ-a-phobe when it comes to coughing people, snotty babies and raw meat. However, how often do people think about bacteria or invisible “creepy crawlies” in our drinking waters or recreational waters?

It is fairly common to grab a glass out of your cabinet and walk over to your refrigerator or kitchen faucet to get a glass of water, and just as common in the summer time to go swimming at a lake or maybe gather a group of friends for a float trip.  Therefore, if the things we can see scare us … why not the things we cannot see (no not the paranormal…muwahahaha) like microscopic bacteria.  Well, fortunately the EPA has got us covered.  As Jeff had blogged about acronym soup, the CWA and SDWA are laws put in place to protect the environments’ watersheds from contaminants and to ensure the quality of our drinking water.

I work most closely with Escherichia coli, or E. coli. (pictured to the right)  This microbe is about 1-3 microns or micrometers long in comparison to a strand of hair, which is about 50 microns thick. Typically, it is hard to see anything smaller than a millimeter (1000 microns) with the naked eye.  Currently EPA and State environmental and public health agencies use E. coli is an indicator organism. This means that it is easier to test and analyze for E. coli than any other pathogens in a body of water.  When a water sample has been collected, it goes back to a laboratory to be analyzed, and if E. coli is found above particular levels, that indicates the potential of other harmful bacteria or other microorganisms in that water source at levels of concern.  Bear in mind not all strains of E. coli are harmful. Contaminated waters usually contain high levels E. coli and clean unpolluted waters generally do not contain very small levels of E. coli if any.  For that reason, when you hear an alert from your city water department about a boil order that means the water was potentially compromised.  By boiling your drinking water, you kill living organism that could be harmful to your health; thus reducing your potential risk of infection.    When your local parks and recreation departments close a swimming beach or water body it is usually because the E. coli counts exceeded a particular level associated with increased risk of infection.   The picture to the left is one of the more common methods for analyzing E. coli.

Have you ever had traveled across the US border or abroad?  Have you ever been swimming at a lake then accidentally swallowed the water?  Have you ever acquired “the stomach flu” after the fact? If you have then you mostly likely drank or swallowed an invisible creepy crawly.  Now anytime I see a potential “germy” situation… I picture my daughter and niece running around, bodies contorted with their fingers wiggling and singing “creepy crawlies… creepy crawlies… creepy crawlies everywhere”.

Regina Klepikow is a Life Scientist for EPA Region 7. She is a Drinking Water Certification Officer and maintains the microbiology laboratory at the Science and Technology Center.  She loves to spend time at the lake with her family.  She always keeps disinfectants nearby because “you never know when you will need them.”

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Preservation of Unique Natural Resources in Puerto Rico

Several links below exit EPA Exit EPA Disclaimer

By Luz v Garcia, MS, ME

Since I wrote about the unique places in Puerto Rico, I have to mention the importance of preserving this unique ecosystem. Dynoflagellates, the microscopic microorganism that produces the luminescence in the Puerto Rico bays can be destroyed without repair. How? Just by the simple act of swimming in these bay waters.

There is a third bioluminescent bay in Puerto Rico—“Laguna Grande” – in the town of Fajardo on the northeastern side of the island. The scientific name of this unique dinoflagellate is Pyrodinium bahamense.  It produces a bioluminescence as bright as the one in Vieques island . But in 2003, this unique habitat was adversely impacted by the local practice of swimming in the area. Luckily, the Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources took over and banned swimming at Laguna Grande and the fluorescent bay was reestablished.

Dynoflagelates are sensitive to other microorganisms—bacteria and ciliates. These contaminating microorganisms can create toxic algae and change the pH of the water where these fragile dynoflagellates live . Human intervention promotes the increase of bacteria in these habitat waters further threatening the fragile pH balance of the ecosystem.

Just imagine that you are enjoying a beautiful flowering garden and all of the sudden the weather changes and acid rain starts pouring into your garden destroying all your beautiful flowers. In the same way, this unique microorganism can disappear by just the simple change in pH created by an increase population of bacteria. The acidification process in the water creates an unbalanced environment for these Dynoflagellates and soon they get “stress out” by the blooming of red algae.

In the town of Fajardo , aquatic sports are commonly practiced. It appears that kayaking has not had an adverse effect, for now, on this unique habitat. I believe humans and other species can live in a positive and facultative symbiotic relationships and knowing how much Puerto Ricans love water sports, I believe that once we are aware of the value of unique natural resources, we will promote their preservation and value.

About the author:  Ms. Luz V. García M.E. is a physical scientist at EPA’s Division of Enforcement of Compliance Assistance. She is a four-time recipient of the EPA bronze medal, most recently in 2011 for the discovery of illegal pesticides entry at U.S. Customs and Border Protection in New York.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Whats in Your Water – KCWaterBug

By Jeffery Robichaud

Last week EPA Headquarters released a new app entitled How’s My Waterway.  If you live in Kansas City, you also have access to another new application with the catchy name KCWaterBug.

Several years ago, EPA’s Kansas City office embraced a goal of reconnecting citizens in urban environments to their local waters.  Initially this involved the establishment of a website and collaborative group (KCWaters.org) in concert with the University of Missouri Kansas City (UMKC), where citizens could access information and data on the lakes and streams in their neighborhoods, from multiple agencies and groups in one simple location.  

In 2011, EPA embarked upon a second phase of the project; to provide real-time awareness of the quality of local waters so citizens could make informed decisions about recreation.  Scientists at United States Geological Survey in Lawrence, Kansas had developed an innovative approach for estimating bacteria concentrations based on basic water quality parameters (which can be seen here).  Building on EPA’s existing Kansas City Urban Stream Monitoring network,  EPA scientists collected paired e-coli and turbidity samples over the course of 2011, to develop a dataset sufficient to establish the necessary relationship.  Next, EPA installed real-time water quality monitoring stations using in-stream probes and satellite telemetry. 

 

Data from the stations is transmitted once an hour via the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s GOES satellites  to servers at the University of Missouri Kansas City, where estimated E-coli concentrations are calculated using turbidity measurements and regression equations for each monitoring location (the graph below shows turbidity and estimated E-coli within the database). 

 

An hourly average estimated E-coli concentration is calculated and each stream is assigned a colored code based on an index tied to health protective levels (shown below). 

Blue denotes that the water is estimated to have E-coli concentrations that are acceptable for all forms of recreation including swimming, while Red denotes contact with water is not advised.  (Green portrays water that is acceptable for wading and splashing while Yellow denotes water that is acceptable for activities which minimally contact water).  The index was established through consideration of USEPA, Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and Missouri Department of Natural Resources water quality criteria for bacteria.

You can download the app for free from both the iTunes store  for apple mobile devices and Google Play for Android devices.  But make sure and hurry up and download these soon, since the weather is starting to get cold and we will be pulling the probes out of the water before too long.  Next Spring we are adding seven more streams to the network, but until then get out and enjoy a walk along your local creek.  You’ll be glad you did.

About the Author: Jeffery Robichaud is a second generation EPA scientist who has worked for the Agency since 1998. He currently serves as Deputy Director of EPA Region 7’s Environmental Services Division.  He uses KCWaterBug on his iPad before taking the family dog for a walk along Line Creek.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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The Beach Awaits

By Trey Cody

Enjoying a day at the beach

When thinking of a beach threat, I typically think of jellyfish.  Once on a family beach vacation, my sister was stung by a jellyfish, and the memory has stuck with me since.  Some people on the other hand may think of crabs or sharks when asked about dangerous things at the beach.

But potentially the most harmful threat at the beach is one we cannot see: bacteria.  A majority of beach closings and advisories issued last year were due to elevated bacteria levels in the water.  An unusually elevated bacteria level in beach water is typically the result of uncontrolled human or animal waste. In wet weather events, stormwater runoff pollutes beach water by bringing bacteria along the way as it runs off through streets and through sewers. To protect the health of beachgoers, monitoring is conducted at many beaches, and advisories are posted to alert the public when it isn’t safe to swim because of high bacteria.

The good news is that for the seventh consecutive year, in 2011, the nation’s coastal and Great Lakes beaches were open and safe for swimming 95 percent of the time during the swimming season.

Beach water quality is a priority here at EPA. We work with state and local partners to control potential sources of pollution to the beaches.  For example, we help communities to build and properly operate sewage treatment plants, and implement a national storm water program and promote green infrastructure to reduce runoff and minimize sewer overflows.  On our Region III Beaches page, you can find out information on beach sampling data, beach closings and advisories, beach water quality standards, and much more!

The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) uses data and information from EPA and the States to publish an annual report on the quality of beach water in the U.S.  It rates popular beaches and awards the ones with exceptionally low violation rates and strong testing and safety practices. Three of the Mid-Atlantic Region’s very own beaches have been particularly vigilant about minimizing the threats from bacteria.  Delaware’s Dewey and Rehoboth beaches and Maryland’s Ocean City at Beach 6 all received a 5-star rating from the NRDC.

At these beaches and many others in Region 3, national standards were not only met, but exceeded, making them some of the cleanest beaches in the country. So before the summer slips away, grab your swim suit, towel and sunscreen and head down to your favorite stretch of shoreline!  Share stories of your time at the beach this summer in our comments section, and contribute your photos to EPA’s State of the Environment Photo Project.

About the Author: Trey Cody has been an intern with EPA’s Water Protection Division since graduation from high school in 2010. He is currently attending the Pennsylvania State University.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Dogs Are Great, But…

By Amy Miller

My dog is cute, but she poops.

I knew when I decided to get a dog that she would poop. Every day.

So I called my friends with dogs. What do you do with the poop, I asked. And then I started hearing the numbers. The official, how-bad-is-dog-poop-for-the-environment numbers. It turns out: Bad.

My big black dog would create as much as 7.8 billion – that’s right billion – coliform bacteria per day. I don’t really know what that number means, but it’s big and bad.

The dirty statistics continued. As much as 90 percent or more of the fecal coliform in urban stormwater in one study was of non-human origin, and most of this was dogs. Plus pet waste can cause algae and weeds. And it can get on your shoes.

Many people think it is OK to put their dog’s doo in a storm drain, where it can run directly into nearby rivers, lakes or oceans. Worse yet, some people put plastic bags holding the waste into storm drains.

Towns around the country are putting up signs to educate the millions of us who have dogs. They are signing laws to encourage us to pick up the poop and passing out bags to make it easier. Unfortunately, nearly half the dog owners who don’t pick up poop said it was the disgusting nature of the job – not ignorance or laziness – that stopped them. And by the way, men were less likely to scoop than woman.

Although most people knew dog waste can be a water quality problem, most also thought it was the least important local water quality problem Not so.

To deal with our distaste for scooping, some towns are setting aside areas where the waste can decompose while other towns are designing areas with high grass doggy loos.

Update, December 13:

In her original post, Amy quoted her stormwater friends at EPA as saying that “as long as there is no chance that the poop will drain into a waterway, my lawn and the woods are AOK.”

Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and I’m sorry for the confusion.  While scooping the poop can be a real chore, whether in your yard or on a walk, please promptly dispose of your pet’s waste in the trash or down the toilet, where it will be properly treated. When pet waste is left behind, it washes into storm drains and ditches, and there’s nowhere it’s ok to just leave it. From drains, it can move straight to local lakes and rivers, taking harmful bacteria with it.

With a little extra effort, dog owners everywhere can play a big part in helping keep our neighborhoods and waters clean, healthy, and pollution free.

— Editor

About the author: Amy Miller is a writer who works in the public affairs office of EPA New England in Boston. She lives in Maine with her husband, two children, seven chickens, two parakeets, dog and a great community.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.