Five years of bacteria ‘blitzing’ makes Auburn-area a cleaner place to live

Area volunteer monitoring groups began collaborative watershed-level water monitoring in the Saugahatchee and Chewacla watersheds in and around Auburn, Alabama back in 2007. Members of Save Our Saugahatchee (SOS) and Friends of Chewacla Creek and the Uphapee Watershed (CHEWUP) had been trained and certified in Bacteriological Monitoring by Alabama Water Watch (AWW), and had monitored a few sites for E. coli in the two watersheds. Concerns about sewage contamination in the Auburn-Opelika area were growing, and the watershed “blitz” sampling idea was born. Actually, the idea was adopted from another monitoring group, Lake Wedowee Property Owners Association, that had initiated watershed blitz sampling (lots of key sites throughout the watershed sampled simultaneously to provide a snapshot of watershed health) in the Lake Wedowee Watershed in 2006 (click here for Lake Wedowee story).

SOS monitor, Cliff Webber, reads plates of bacteria after incubation

Up until 2009, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) used a slightly different measure, fecal coliforms, to measure bacteria contamination in surface waters. Since the presence of E. coli, a subset of fecal coliforms, correlates more closely to the occurrence of human illness from bacteria-laden waters, ADEM switched to an E. coli-based water quality standard in December 2009. Since these relatively new water quality standards are in close agreement with the existing AWW bacteria monitoring protocols, AWW is sticking with its 200 and 600 cut-offs for continuity in citizen monitor data reporting and interpretation (below 200 E. coli/100 mL of water = safe for frequent human contact, 200-600 E. coli/100 mL of water = maximum level for infrequent human contact, and above 600 E. coli/100 mL of water = unsafe for human contact; symbolized by the green-yellow-red traffic light used on AWW bacteria graphs).

E. coli (blue colonies) measured in Pepperell Branch
in March 2010

SOS and CHEWUP monitors strategized on a sampling plan and conducted their first watershed blitz in January 2007, monitoring 26 sites in the two watersheds. Five years later, blitz sampling has grown to 40 sites on Saugahatchee and Chewacla creeks and their key tributaries.

During SOS’s annual meeting in December 2011, AWW staffer, Eric Reutebuch, presented an overview of the 2011 Bacteria Blitz results (click here to view the Powerpoint). The 2011 sampling plan had

Volunteer monitor sites during 2011 bacteria blitz sampling (click for enlarged image)

expanded by five additional sample sites on the Pepperell Branch in Opelika. This sampling was added as a part of the implementation of an ADEM-funded watershed management plan, the Saugahatchee Watershed Management Plan (SWaMP) that targets reduction of nonpoint source pollution to clean up the creek. Since Pepperell Branch was added to ADEM’s 303(d) list of polluted streams in 2010 because of excess pathogens, more intensive sampling of this tributary was proposed to aid in quantifying and sourcing bacteria contamination as a part of SWaMP implementation. Interestingly, of the 40 sites sampled in 2011, exactly half (20) were in the Saugahatchee Watershed and the other half were in the Chewacla Watershed (which was unplanned, based solely on volunteer monitor concern and effort).

Summaries of results were presented for the four seasonal bacteria blitzes in both tabular and map formats (see Powerpoint). A total of 45 “hits” (E. coli levels of 200 per 100 milliliters of water or higher) were measured out of 138 samples measured during 2011 blitz efforts (15 of the 45 hits were in the “red zone” – greater than 600 E. coli per 100 milliliters of water, which is unsafe for human contact; 30 were in the “yellow zone” – 200 to 600 E. coli per 100 milliliters of water, which is the maximum allowable level for infrequent human contact).

Total 2011 hits broken out by stream indicated that the two streams 303(d)-listed for pathogens, Parkerson Mill and Pepperell Branch, had the highest levels and occurrences of E. coli contamination (11 and 10 hits respectively). The following graph is a priority ranking of sampled streams based on occurrence of E. coli hits measured by the SOS and CHEWUP water monitors (red portion of bars indicate hits of E. coli greater than 600/100 milliliters of water; yellow portion of bars indicate hits of E. coli in the 200-600/100 milliliter of water range):

Click here for larger graph

As seen above, the two 303(d)-listed streams (based on presence of excessive pathogens) were the highest priority streams (had the greatest number of E. coli hits) based on the 2011 citizen bacteria blitz data.

Examples of long-term trends in bacteria concentrations in select streams were presented to show more intensive sampling done by some of the local volunteer monitors, and to emphasize that these data and graphs can be accessed and explored via the AWW homepage (www.alabamawaterwatch.org, click on WATER DATA).

In conclusion:

  1. The mainstem of Saugahatchee Creek was not heavily contaminated with E. coli, contamination occurred mostly in a tributary, the Pepperell Branch.
  2. Volunteer water quality data in the two watersheds, the Saugahatchee and Chewacla watersheds, grew from zero in 1996 to 5,250 records in December 2011.
  3. As a result of volunteer water monitoring, sewage contamination problems in both Auburn and Opelika have been sourced and fixed.
  4. Collaborative relationships have developed between citizen monitors and municipal officials, which are crucial for the effective and timely solving of water quality problems.
  5. Auburn-area efforts serve as an inspirational success story to motivate others toward watershed stewardship (featured as an AWW SUCCESS STORY – see AWW’s homepage).

Watershed monitoring and pollution resolution was accomplished through the efforts of both SOS and CHEWUP volunteer monitors, through training and backstopping provided to volunteers by AWW, through funding provided by grants from ADEM and the World Wildlife Fund, and through collaboration with municipal officials in the cities of Auburn and Opelika – thanks to all for making this part of Alabama a better place to live!