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Science and the Environment

Understanding Local Water Conditions: What Officials Are Testing For

James River
Scott Harvey

With the Memorial Day weekend comes more outdoor activities, including on area lakes and rivers. But officials advise you know the conditions of those waterways before getting in.

Over the summer months, the Springfield-Greene County Health Department and the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks test local waterways for disease causing pathogens. These results are then posted online.

“We have a partnership with the Watershed Committee to make sure the water sources around the area that are the most popular, as far as people coming into contact with them, are safe throughout the summer period or recreational water period,” said Kendra Findley, the Administrator of Community Health and Epidemiology for the Springfield-Greene County Health Department.

Weekly samples are taken of the James River, Galloway Creek, Lake Springfield, Little Sac River and Wilson’s Creek. The samples are tested by the health department.

Findley and her staff expect to see fecal-related bacteria in the water. But their focus is on the concentration of these bacteria or parasites as they relate to human health.

“E. coli is ubiquitous in the environment,” Findley said. “It is in the intestinal tract of all warm blooded animals and humans. It is going to be all around us, we’re just concerned if we are going to come into contact with it in enough of a concentration to cause disease.”

In addition to E. coli, the department tests for the bacteria Shigella, as well as the parasites Giardia and Cryptosporidium. All four of these pathogens, or coliform bacteria, are fecal-related and non-disease forming in small amounts. However, weather has a direct impact on these concentration levels.

“Anytime we have a heavy rain event, we expect to see numbers of coliform and E. coli to spike,” Findley said. “But, as the higher water levels recede, we expect to see those bacterial numbers decline. It’s just environmental nature.”

Based on EPA standards, the health department determines if the water is safe to interact with. The criterion states that water is unsafe once it reaches 235 colony forming units (CFU) per 100 milliliters of water.

“If you’re going to be in the water during these high concentration levels, it is important to avoid getting water in your mouth, be sure to wash your hands when you get out of the water or use hand sanitizer,” Findley said. “Not only will there be a good chance of bacteria, but also parasites that can cause diarrhea illness.”

On its website, you can view the weekly tests for those five sites.

Any test result number in red and above 235 CFUs indicates that body of water has a high enough concentration of pathogens to possibly cause illness.