Grady Newsource Explains: Water Quality Indicators


E.ColiUnacceptably high levels of E. coli bacteria found by volunteers in a Barber Creek tributary has Oconee County residents concerned about the quality of their recreational water.

As present, the state Environmental Protection Division’s water quality monitoring of Georgia’s water resources differs from that recommended by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

According to the EPA, E. coli and enterococci are better indicators of health risk from water contact. In Georgia, however, fecal coliforms, a subset of total coliform bacteria, are still being used as the indicator bacteria. This is problematic because these coliform may not even be fecal in origin. E. coli is a species of fecal coliform bacteria that is specific to the fecal material from humans and other warm-blooded animals.

“I don’t know why they don’t test for E. coli,” says Steve Walker of the Athens Branch of the Environmental Protection Division. “That’s a standard parameter for testing. E. coli may be an even newer parameter for testing.”

The EPD’s Watershed Protection Branch manages water resources in Georgia through permits to local governments and industry. According to Walker, the testing facility in Oconee County is bound by the permit as it currently exists. The permit currently does not require sampling for E. coli.

“In the future, who knows. We may see that being incorporated into the permits,” says Walker.

Efforts to contact the permitting department of the Georgia EPD were unsuccessful.

This disparity in water testing standards leaves concerned citizens to test their water themselves. Volunteers from the Upper Oconee Watershed Network found excessively high levels of E. coli bacteria in a water sample drawn last week from a tributary to Barber Creek that received raw sewage from a spill in late August.

“It’s not necessarily designated as a swimming place. But we feel that with kids playing in the water … I went back to sample, I saw children’s shovels, buckets, fishing rods, and things along the bank. So you know, kids do go in them from the neighborhood and play in them all the time,” says Vicki Soutar, a volunteer with the Upper Oconee Watershed Network.

Anyone can test E. coli bacteria levels if they get a test through the protocol with the Oconee County Extensions Service. In every sample gathered by volunteers, unacceptable levels of E. coli bacteria were detected.

Initial testing of the Barber Creek tributary conducted by the Oconee County Utility Department found no reason for concern, and determined that no further testing is required.

Initial testing only revealed levels of fecal coliforms. It was not determined by the EPD whether excessively high levels of E. coli were present. According to Soutar, recent rainfall may have washed raw sewage into the stream that may previously have been undetected.

The Environmental Protection Division was not aware of the Upper Oconee Watershed Network’s testing results. Soutar plans to discuss these results with the director of the Oconee County Utility Department in the near future.


By: Allison Gowens


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