This summer, as an intern in the Communications Department at CBF, I helped with a bacteria-monitoring project to educate the public on the water quality in their own backyard rivers and streams and the harmful effect that polluted runoff has on them. When it rains, pollution pours off of yards, roads, farms, and other surfaces and flows into local creeks and rivers.
For the past few years, CBF staff and volunteers have collected water samples after heavy rains from popular swimming holes and urban rivers. The samples are tested for fecal bacteria. The project this year has grown from testing just a few sites in Maryland counties, to locations all across the region in Virginia and Pennsylvania.
After heavy rainstorms when polluted runoff levels were at their peak, I collected water samples in six sites in Howard County, Maryland. All were on tributaries of the Patapsco River and were either popular watering holes where parents could take their kids on a hot summers day or located in residential areas:
- Budd Run is located behind an apartment complex off Route 1.
- Cascade Falls is a popular hiking and swimming area located in Patapsco National Park.
- The Plumtree Branch is a small creek running behind Dunloggin Middle School.
- The Tiber-Hudson Branch winds its way through a parking lot behind the cute shops of Ellicott City.
- The Sucker Branch lies behind Our Lady's Center.
- And the final site is a small section of the Patapsco where families come to swim, rope swing, and picnic.
All these locations provide a great respite from the concrete suburban world. But are they really the natural, healthy places we need when trying to get away from it all? I'd argue that for these sites to really fulfill our need for a getaway from the roads and buildings that surround us regularly, or provide a place to cool off during our hot and humid summers, they should be clean, at least to the point where water quality meets EPA's standards! Right now, that's not the case.
Grappling with the desire for people to get outside and enjoy their natural surroundings and the need to educate them about what exactly they are swimming in or living next to was the hardest part of this project for me.
I first encountered this dilemma the first day of testing while visiting Cascade Falls. It was brutally hot on a late June day—a perfect place for lots of kids to come play in the cool waters of this beautiful waterfall. Or so it seemed. I myself enjoyed rock scrambling and wading in the waters. But the time came when I had to pull out my sampling bottle to collect water for the lab. Immediately someone asked me what I was doing, what I was collecting samples for. I turned to them, noticing the irony of what I was going to tell them while I myself was standing ankle deep in the water in flip flops. I explained CBF's project, telling this parent how we suspected the water to have incredibly high levels of bacteria and fecal matter as their kids splashed around nearby. Of course, he looked horrified and asked if there was anything he could do, any precautions he could take. I advised him to wait at least two days after a large rainstorm before swimming in his local waters as local health officials have said.
But what else can we do? We want to enjoy the outdoors and experience the respite of cool water these rivers and creeks provide. But how can we continue to do so knowing our waters are contaminated with high counts of bacteria and fecal matter? For now, we can each do our part to try and better the waters around us by reducing the amount of polluted runoff flowing into our rivers and streams. Cleaning up after your dog and properly maintaining a septic system are things homeowners can do to prevent fecal pollution. Farmers can also keep livestock away from streams. Other things we can do: picking up trash, installing rain gardens and rain barrels, and planting trees along streams. And remember to not swim for at least 48 hours after a heavy rainstorm.
CBF's bacteria-testing project is not designed to scare people away from enjoying our waters or to report water quality like the health department, but rather to educate and inspire us all to be vigilant stewards of our environment.
—Text and photos by Maryann Webb, CBF Communications Intern