Water Tests Find High Levels of Fecal Material in Area Streams and Rivers, including Swimming Holes

(ANNAPOLIS, MD)—Excrement in local streams and rivers is not limited to big cities such as Baltimore, but is a problem in some suburban and rural areas outside the city, according to water monitoring this summer by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). Several popular swimming holes were among the sites where bacteria levels spiked after rainstorms to levels hundreds of times above federal safety standards.

"Clearly, several local governments have a problem with polluted runoff," said Alison Prost, Maryland Executive Director of CBF. "This isn't an abstract problem. It puts the health of residents who swim, wade or come into contact with these waters at risk. Those governments need to work aggressively to reduce polluted runoff, and ensure the health of their residents."

Upon learning of the test results, one couple in Baltimore County worried about their grandchildren swimming in the river in front of their home. A camp director in Harford County kept his children away from a popular swimming hole after storms. The Maryland Department of Environment says as a rule of thumb people should not contact any natural water in the state for 48 hours after a significant storm, because of polluted runoff.

Polluted runoff is water that runs off the land during storms and picks up contaminants. Those pollutants can include human and animal waste from leaking sewer and septic systems, pet waste, and livestock manure. It also can include other types of pollutants, including weed killer, lawn fertilizer, and petroleum residue. The runoff flushes into nearby streams, often with no treatment.

While local governments in populated counties and cities are required by federal and state law to reduce polluted runoff, several local counties have opted in recent years not to collect adequate revenues to address the problem. In recent weeks, several counties have informed the state they plan to do only half the work of reducing polluted runoff required by law. Most counties, as well as Baltimore City, fall far short of complying with goals for upgrading their stormwater systems.

CBF conducted tests in about 40 Maryland streams and rivers this summer in five counties, Baltimore, Carroll, Frederick, Harford and Howard, and in Baltimore City. Most tests were conducted after storms. Additional sites also were tested in Virginia and Pennsylvania. Results of the tests, and a map of the test sites, can be found here.

Many sites had bacteria levels above government safety levels even during dry weather. But those levels often spiked after storms when water flushed animal and human waste into nearby creaks. Among sites with high levels were:

  • White Marsh Run in Baltimore County had bacteria levels at least 400 times higher than safety standards after a rainstorm of .80 inches on Aug. 2. The stream feeds Bird River where people often swim and kayak, although the bacteria was diluted the further it traveled down the river.
  • Glade Run, a rural stream that runs through Walkersville and Walkersville Community Park in Frederick County, had bacteria levels 324 times above safety limits after a .43 inch storm on June 16. Children reportedly played in water not far from the test site.
  • Cascade Falls, a popular swimming hole on the Cascade Trail in Patapsco Valley State Park in Howard County, had bacteria levels 304 times higher than safe standards after a rain of one inch on July 5. Bathers were seen in the water when the water sample was collected at the site.

Health experts say swimming or ingesting water from water polluted by bacteria can cause a variety of intestinal illnesses, including stomach aches and diarrhea.

"It's been discouraging. We had no idea that there was this much pollution in the water," said Pete Terry, a resident of Stumpf Road whose home is on Bird River in Baltimore County.

"It's getting to the point where we are so very concerned when we have company or when we have children in the water. We are hesitant to now allow them to go in," said Terry's wife Janet.

The high bacteria counts at these and other area steams were equivalent to, or higher than, levels found in several Baltimore City streams. Baltimore has been the focus of significant media attention for its sewer pipes that leak during storms, resulting in polluted streams and the Inner Harbor, and also sewage sometimes flooding residents' basements. But the CBF tests indicate the problem of excrement in local water could be far more widespread.

CBF is conducting a pilot program in Fredrick County, in conjunction with Hood College, to try to determine the source of the fecal bacteria at test sites in that county. Those findings are expected to be available in September.

"Citizens need to contact their local and state governments and leaders to insist they take more vigorous steps to reduce pollution from animals in streams, failing septic systems and polluted runoff," Prost said. "Cleaning up our streams and rivers will reduce the chances of people getting sick from unhealthy water, and will provide other environmental and economic benefits. Downstream areas such as the Chesapeake Bay also will benefit."

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