Saturday, August 15, 2015

Don't Touch That Water

When I first interviewed Bob Gouin, our Director of Environmental Health, after I become Health Officer, I asked him about the strengths and weaknesses of the Department. He mentioned one weakness which seemed particularly serious to him. He said we were not doing surface water testing. Therefore, he could not tell the public whether the rivers and lakes in Mid-Michigan are healthy or unhealthy. We did not have a budget for testing, which is expensive, and his efforts to get grants had failed.

Because of the work of a number of community partners we are starting to get access to data on water quality from all three of our counties: Clinton, Gratiot and Montcalm. This is enabling us to create a portrait of the health of our watersheds, and the findings are troubling.

First I want to thank those who are doing the testing for sharing their results with the Health Department. Having access to these data is enabling us to act as if we have a funded water quality monitoring program and to do the things a local health department should do, such as assess possible threats and issue advisories to the public if warranted.

Currently testing is being done by the Clinton Conservation District (thanks John Switzer) on the Upper Maple and Looking Glass; the Kent Conservation District (thanks Connie Redding) on the Flat River; and by Alma College (thanks Tim Keeton) which is working with the City of Alma (thanks Phil Moore) on the Pine River. The work of the Clinton and Kent Conservation Districts is being paid for by federal Clean Water Act grants in support of comprehensive watershed management, and Alma College is testing because that's the sort of thing those Scots do.


I also want to thank Megan McMahon and several others at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for helping to ensure that the testing being done follows approved protocols and can be used to draw valid conclusions.

We are testing for E. coli, an indicator species of gut bacteria that is both a health threat itself and, if found, alerts you to the likelihood that other bad bugs may be present. Testing is a little bit complicated. You have to draw the samples in a way that ensures they aren't contaminated and that gives a fair assessment of the entire water body. You have to get the samples to an approved lab within time limits. You have grow bacteria colonies in a standardized way and count them correctly. Finally, after counting, you compute the geometric mean of the samples. The geometric mean is a kind of average that discounts outlying values. The rules for all this are well documented by DEQ and our testers know what they are doing.

One of the things the Clinton Conservation District is doing is getting DNA profiles of their E. coli. That way you can tell if it came from cows, pigs, geese, deer, etc., and we do see all of those, although cow is the most common. There is a less expensive way to test for human E. coli--poop sniffing dogs. Next week a dog will be in Mid-Michigan testing samples from the Upper Maple and Looking Glass. The picture below shows a dog checking samples. If she gets a hit she sits down. The dogs are 99% accurate.

Love those dogs!
Health Departments use a two-part protocol developed by EPA and adopted by DEQ to determine if E. coli is within safe limits. The first part applies to swimming. If you are swimming your head is probably going under the water and E. coli is touching your lips, so the standard is strict. There should be no more than 130 E. coli colonies per 100 milliliters averaged over a 30 day period, or 300 from a one day sample. The second part applies to boating and fishing (getting your arms or feet wet) and the limit is 1,000 E. coli from a one day sample.

What's so bad about E. coli? An infection is sometimes mild, but it can cause serious gastrointestinal illness and rarely death, and it can also cause nasty skin infections. If human E. coli is in the water bad pathogens like Giardia and Cryptosporidium are probably in there, too. E. coli from agricultural runoff can be antibiotic resistant, so an infection could be difficult to treat.

But I checked local hospital reports and I know that our emergency rooms are not being mobbed by people with E. coli related illness. It is always present in the environment in low levels, so should we really be freaking out? The real concern with high levels of E. coli is that it is yet another indicator of our rivers being saturated with nutrients generated by our modern agro-industrial way of life. These nutrients cause the toxic algae blooms that threaten the drinking water of Great Lakes cities, and they are causing our river fronts to be choked with plants and algae, sabotaging economic development plans and property values. So, yes, you should worry about the river water making you sick (don't get it in your mouth), but even if you never go near a river you should be concerned about the long term impact on drinking water and the economy.

So what are are results? Alma college has sampled at five locations on the Pine upstream from Alma and has found that a good chunk of the time the river is not safe for swimming. The worst days are right after a rainstorm. Furthermore on six different occasions the river was not even safe for boating or fishing. On Monday I am going to meet with folks from the Kent Conservation District to see their data, but they have already told me that the Flat River has tested positive for human E. coli. We should have the results from the Upper Maple in a few days, but we already know DEQ tested that river a couple of years ago and it had elevated E. coli levels then, and since then the animal and human pressure on that river has only increased, so we expect bad news.

At a meeting in Alma last Thursday organized by Gary Rayburn, Tim Keeton presented the Alma College data, and after hearing the results, community members asked the Health Department to issue an advisory for the Pine River. One person even said we should put a sign at the boat landing on the Mill Pond saying the river is CLOSED. We will take action after talking to Alma officials.

The fact is we see the same picture everywhere we look.  DEQ tests Michigan rivers on a five year rolling schedule and regularly finds excessive E. coli.  The Saginaw Chippewa Tribe Utility Services Department tests the Chippewa River just to our north, which is a major regional canoeing and swimming destination and publishes its results here. They find the same thing we have: you shouldn't swim except in a few locations, and sometimes you shouldn't boat or fish.

I realize these results can be confusing.  How do I know if the river is safe today? "Our family has been canoeing for years--should we stop?" There is no way to know if the river is safe today. It takes time to process and analyze test results. By the time you get the results the water you tested is 100 miles down stream. The best advice is to stay out of the river after a rainstorm and never get the water in your mouth.

But E. coli points to other issues that everyone should care about: the water in the Great Lakes is getting dirty again--this time its not toxic chemicals but nutrients like fertilizer and manure from agriculture and also human poop that are causing toxic algae blooms and imperiling economic development. We need to clean things up again!

There are plenty of things we can do to clean up the water. We can require farms to process their manure to reduce the amount that needs to be spread on the land.  We can restore buffer strips and wetlands near water bodies to capture runoff. We can get homes that have no septic tanks, or broken ones, to get working ones. Simple steps like these will work if they are actually put in place.


Governor Snyder has just released a comprehensive plan for managing Michigan's water and fulfilling our responsibilities to the other Great Lakes states and provinces: Sustaining Michigan's Water Heritage. The plan promises assistance to communities like us in Mid-Michigan. And, while I am increasingly cynical about such promises in this era of cutbacks and mandates, there is one reason to think something will happen. Michigan's elites value our billion dollar "Pure Michigan" tourism industry. But if tourists arrive at our rivers, lakes and beaches and there is a big "CLOSED" sign there, they will be very disappointed, and may not come back.