New tool helps locate water pollution threats from human, animal waste

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By Ben Muir

There are 196 lakes, rivers and beaches in Michigan with high levels of E. coli bacteria, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.

And you can find out just where they are with an online tool created by the department.

“Our tool is mostly for exploring your watershed to find out where the water quality is impaired by E. coli,” said Molly Rippke, the department’s senior aquatic biologist. “We are not going to be predicting anything, or have last week’s data on there.”

The tool, however, is not for mapping exact E. coli levels in Michigan, Rippke said.

“If people want to know if they can go to the beach this weekend, this isn’t the tool for that,” Rippke said.

Instead, users can use the “Mapper” tab to see if their watershed, an area of land that drains water into streams and rivers, has exceeded acceptable levels of E. coli in the past.

To do that, users can click on contaminated areas that are highlighted in purple. Then click on the green “Layer List” option at the bottom of the screen, this is a filter. If not already, check mark “TMDL Layers” and then click the grey dropdown arrow to the left.

Another feature in the “Mapper” tab is to locate local watershed councils. Users can highlight their watershed and then click on “Layer List.” Once there, check mark solutions, and within solutions, click “Watershed Councils and Environmental Organizations.”

So how can we limit the amount of purple contamination highlights displayed by the mapper?

“There are all kinds of organizations that people can contact in order to start actually helping,” Rippke said, “to start making a difference in river cleanup or agricultural management practices for livestock.”

The data on the tool is about two months old and will be updated every year, Rippke said.

“We want to be completely honest and upfront about where E. coli is,” Rippke said. “That was one of our main goals.”

E. coli is not poop

E. coli is a bacteria that could indicate the presence of sewage. It is science jargon for a reference point.

Joan Rose is a water quality expert at Michigan State University who tests water all the time. When tests come back positive for E. coli, she knows feces is in that water, usually from a human or a cow, she said.

And where there are feces, there is bound to be harmful viruses, Rose said.

“We can find about 150 viruses in fecal pollution,” Rose said. “We find viruses like hepatitis and salmonella.”

If a person dives into E. coli-infested waters and ingests the bacteria, he or she could get sick from the possible viruses hiding in it, Rose said. Gastroenteritis is a common sickness that causes upset stomach, diarrhea and vomiting. Kidney failure can occur in severe cases, with subsequent dialysis treatment required, Rose said.

“Even people boating on polluted waters can get sick,” Rose said. “It can be ingested by touching the water, then touching the mouth or eye.”

And there is a surprisingly large amount of it out there.

Between 1992 and 2010, E. coli was responsible for 184,923 days of closure for the 1,070 public beaches attached to the Great Lakes, said Jean Pierre Nshimyimana, a postdoctoral fellow at Michigan State’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.


The fight against E. coli starts at finding where it comes from and how scientists find it, Rose said.

There are two origins: point sources and nonpoint sources. A point source is likely a sewage treatment plant, Rose said. A nonpoint source is pollution from farmland and septic tanks.

There is a high chance of finding harmful viruses when E. coli is found, depending on what people are flushing down their pipes. If a person is sick, for example, and uses the bathroom, he or she is sending that virus into the septic tank, which later runs off into the ground and eventually to streams, rivers and lakes.

“Wherever that water is moving, bacteria is moving,” Rose said. “Some of the bacteria get filtered out naturally, but not enough, especially in areas with a lot of septic tanks.”

Michigan is the first state to introduce new microbial testing kits that allow researchers to determine the exact source of pollution, Rose said.

Genetic marker testing lets researchers categorize pollution sources, Rose said.

B-theta is a marker specific to human feces and when detected, researchers conclude that human waste is the source, as opposed to manure or bird waste.

Rose and a team of water researchers that studied Michigan watersheds found higher B-theta levels in areas with septic systems nearby. This tells researchers that septic systems might be failing and human feces are seeping into the water, Rose said.

“It’s not a matter of if it happens but when it happens,” Rose said. “There is a high probability that pathogen exposure will happen if we don’t take care of the pollution sources now.”

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