By BEN MUIR
Capital News Service
LANSING — Almost 200 lakes, rivers and beaches in Michigan have high levels of E. coli bacteria, according to the Department of Environmental Quality.
And you can find out 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.”
Instead, the “Mapper” tab shows whether a watershed — land that drains water into streams and rivers – has exceeded acceptable levels of E. coli in the past. The data on the tool are about two months old and will be updated every year, 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.
E. coli is a bacteria that could indicate the presence of sewage.
To find sites that have had high E. coli levels, 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.
Another feature in the “Mapper” tab is the location of local watershed councils.
So how can the public 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,” to make a difference in river cleanup or agricultural management practices for livestock, Rippke said.
“We want to be completely honest and upfront about where E. coli is,” Rippke said. “That was one of our main goals.”
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 are in that water.
And where there are feces, there are bound to be harmful viruses, Rose said.
“We can find about 150 viruses in fecal pollution,” she 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 viruses hiding in it, Rose said. Gastroenteritis, a common virus that hides in E. coli, causes upset stomach, diarrhea and vomiting. Kidney failure can occur in severe cases and require dialysis treatment.
“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’s 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.
Rose said the fight against E. coli starts at finding where it comes from.
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.
When E. coli is found, chances are high of harmful viruses, 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 potential 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 it is 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.
“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.”
Ben Muir writes for Great Lakes Echo.
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES FOR CNS EDITORS
Michigan E. coli Pollution and Solution Mapper: http://mdeq.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapSeries/index.html?appid=2a060da30e25451292220861632b2c99
By BEN MUIR