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Great Lakes Article:

Plan toRreduce E. coli Levels in River on the Fast Track
Wayne Falda
South Bend Tribune
03/12/03

BERRIEN CENTER -- A tiny intestinal bacteria, E. coli, has put Indiana and Michigan environmental agencies on a cramped schedule to complete a procedure to make the St. Joseph River safer for swimmers.

E. coli is the most pervasive water-borne pollutant in the country. Some types of E. coli can cause a whole host of gastrointestinal ailments. The revised Clean Water Act requires new methods and policies to limit its introduction into bodies of water.

The schedule for a unified plan covering the entire St. Joseph River watershed in both states leaves no room for delay.

"We don't have a lot of time to sit around on this project," said Christine Alexander, an aquatic biologist with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ).

The MDEQ and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management will soon begin coordinating to develop an internal draft of that plan by July.

The draft must be ready for a 30-day public comment period beginning in September, ahead of its submission to the Environmental Protection Agency by November.

Fortunately, reams of data already exist that pin down the most serious sources of E. coli, namely city sewer systems and surface runoff from livestock operations.

"We have what I call the sandwiching part -- that is, sitting down with Indiana and figuring out where the potential problems are," Alexander said at a meeting at the Love Creek Nature Center.

The Clean Water Act requirement, already 10 years old, changes the way state environmental agencies assess their water pollution problems. Its official title is Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL.

IDEM's TMDL manager, Staci Goodwin, said much of the same information regarding Indiana's data sets will be presented from 10 a.m. until noon today at the Mishawaka Utilities office, 401 E. Jefferson Blvd.

E. coli is the first, but not the only, pollutant the EPA wants to have re-examined under the TMDL program.

"We have a schedule for PCB and mercury TMDLs between five and eight years (from now)," said William Creal, an MDEQ environmental manager.

The methods to restrict these pollutants will be wholly different, he said. While the EPA has banned PCBs, the pollutant can slowly seep into a water body from releases that occurred years ago. Mercury is a major airborne pollutant that continues to precipitate from the smoke of coal-fired electric plants.

Creal said the widespread water quality monitoring over many years shows the St. Joseph River watershed is not severely affected by the pollutants.

"The quality of the water in this watershed is good," he said.

While PCB and mercury levels remain fairly constant, E. coli levels can fluctuate significantly -- even daily.

"(E. coli) data for the St. Joe River is extremely variable," Alexander said.

A single snapshot of the river's E. coli loading "can be misleading," Alexander said, because untreated sewage can surge into the river from municipal combined sewer overflows after a heavy downpour.

But living E. coli will die in a few days once it has left its safe harbor, the mammalian gut.

By that time, the dead or dying organisms may already be flushed out into Lake Michigan.

Farm feedlot operations are a major contributor to E. coli discharges into waterways, especially when animals are allowed to wade in streams.

New EPA rules to control non-point pollution from large-scale livestock farms had barely begun to take effect when three national environmental organizations on Friday challenged the Bush administration with a lawsuit saying the administration is trying to relax those rules.

The groups are the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Waterkeeper Alliance.

Alexander said E. coli from streams and tributaries to the St. Joe can have a substantial impact on the water quality of the river at times.

If tributaries are also discharging large amounts of E. coli into the river, "then the concentrations of E. coli can add up in a hurry," she said.

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