By KATE YANCHULIS, News21/CNS
COLLEGE PARK, Md. (July 30, 2010)—Swimming in the rivers that feed the Chesapeake Bay after a hard rain could be as hazardous to your health as hopping into an unflushed toilet.
That was a key finding of a water quality experiment conducted this month by reporters at the University of Maryland working for News21, a national consortium of journalism schools.
The team took water samples before and after significant rainfall at seven beaches and recreation spots along five rivers that feed the Chesapeake Bay. Their goal was to gauge the impact of storm water—one of the fastest-growing pollution sources in the Chesapeake Bay—on bacteria levels in the water.
For comparison, the team also took two water samples from a household toilet--one while it was clean, and another after human feces had sat in it for four hours.
After the rain on July 15, the tests showed that three of the seven sites had bacteria levels far higher than Maryland and Virginia standards for safe recreation, and five were above the level for safe swimming. Two—Savage Park in Howard County and Middle Branch Park in Baltimore—had bacteria levels much higher than the dirty toilet.
And all but one site—the Inner Harbor of Baltimore—showed a rise in bacteria levels following the rain. (See related map for results.) But even the Inner Harbor sample was higher than the allowable level for safe swimming.
"The problem is now that every time it rains, the material that's sitting in our streets, sitting on our yards, just gets washed into our creeks," said Dr. Sally Hornor, a biology professor at Anne Arundel Community College, who conducted the water analyses for News21.
Maryland and Virginia's state and county health departments advise against swimming and direct contact with water within 48 hours of major rain, usually defined as a rainfall exceeding one inch. "Particularly in the summer when we have these huge thunderstorms, water comes off the land quickly and carries with it any bacteria that might be present," said Kathy Brohawn, chief of the bacteria assessment division for the Maryland Department of the Environment.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that 1.42 inches of rain fell in Baltimore and 2.2 inches fell in Washington within 48 hours of the July 15 tests.
Savage Park, a public park on the Middle Patuxent River, by far had the most bacteria of the seven samples—1,752 colony-forming units of enterococci bacteria in one 100 ml sample following the rain. The park does not have a public beach, but bathers were in the water when News21 visited July 7.
Though no one was in the water when News21 returned July 15, Jennifer DeArmey, Howard County's supervisor of park operations, said the river and park attract throngs of visitors—for hiking, fishing, picnicking and, yes, even swimming.
"There are many, especially in the nearby Latino community, who use the river and find peacefulness in the river and take their families there," DeArmey said. "They're relieving some stress and heat by sitting in the water."
While the park has a no-swimming regulation, it is not enforced, DeArmey said.
"We're trying to work with the Savage community to make the best decision for the park and the river," she said. "How could we keep people out? Parks are for people."
While the dry weather sample at Savage Park showed a safe level of bacteria for both swimming and recreation, Bert Nixon, director of the Howard County Bureau of Environmental Health, would not recommend swimming in any untested waters.
"Because it's an open body of water, things can change at any given point in time," Nixon said. "Unless waters are tested fairly continuously, you can have rain events or other things that can impact the quality of water without you knowing it. Just because it may look clean doesn't mean it is clean."
According to Maryland and Virginia state water quality standards, levels exceeding 104 bacteria are unsafe for swimming, and levels exceeding 151 are unsafe for human recreation. The states follow the Environmental Protection Agency's guidelines for water quality. The bacteria limits mark the point at which more than eight in 1,000 people would be predicted to contract a gastrointestinal illness after full-body contact with the water.
Middle Branch Park, on the Patapsco River in Baltimore, revealed problems similar to Savage Park's. Its July 15 sample showed it had more than five times the safe level of enterococci bacteria for recreational use.
Like Savage Park, Middle Branch does not include a public beach, but it attracts fishers and crabbers to its three docks, including several on both dates News21 visited. It also serves as the headquarters for the Baltimore Rowing Club.
News21's sample in mid-July found 792 units of the bacteria per 100 ml, up from just 2 units in the dry weather sample.
After the rain, the samples from both Savage Park and Middle Branch Park had higher levels of the bacteria than those found in a toilet bowl in which feces had floated for four hours. The toilet had 268 units of the bacteria in the 100 ml sample.
Fairview Beach, Va., a public beach along the banks of the Potomac River, had a bacteria level more than twice the safe limit for swimming following the heavy rain. The sample had 240 colony-forming units of enterococci bacteria per 100 milliliters of water—up from a safe level in the dry-weather sample.
No warning had been given to swimmers because officials didn't realize enough rain had fallen that week to cause a problem, said Tommy Thompson, the Virginia Department of Health's environmental health supervisor for King George County. Rolling thunderstorms had cleared out of the town the day before, after a few days of rain.
Three years ago, Fairview Beach fixed leaky septic tanks and sewer pipes that flowed right to the shore, helping to alleviate some of the beach's runoff problems, Thompson said.
News21's tests echo a smaller-scale test by Howard Ernst, an environmental writer and political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. Ernst tested three toilet samples - one from a clean toilet, one from a toilet in which human feces sat briefly, and one from a toilet in which feces floated for one hour. He found they all had lower bacteria levels than his neighborhood's public beach on the Severn River following a heavy rain.
All of the tests underscored how rainwater, which flushes pollutants from storm drains and sewage overflows into rivers and streams, can make popular recreation spots unhealthy for visitors. They also highlight the difficulty that Chesapeake Bay tributaries have in fulfilling the goals of the federal Clean Water Act, which include making every body of water in the nation swimmable and fishable.
Swimmers in polluted water can contract any illness that is spread by fecal contact, including stomach flu and respiratory, ear, eye and skin infections, especially if they have an open cut or wound or ingest any water, said Denise Hakowski , EPA's mid-Atlantic beach program coordinator.
Enterococci bacteria are present in high levels in the fecal matter of warm-blooded animals. While the enterococci themselves are unlikely to cause illness, they indicate the presence of sewage and all the other harmful bacteria that come with it, Hornor said.
"To me, this is just outrageous, that we do not have swimmable water every time it rains," Hornor said.
Though local health departments must monitor public beaches and post advisories against swimming when bacteria levels exceed the safe limit, at even the most popular spots testing is only required once a week, said Heather Morehead, the Maryland beaches program coordinator.
Areas not designated public swimming beaches are almost never officially tested, no matter how much recreational use they actually see, health officials said.
At Fairview Beach, three samples taken by health department officials on July 12, three days before News21's sample, came back with an average of just 17 enterococci per 100 ml—no reason for alarm, said Thompson. Still, officials are told to be on guard for major storms, he said. But officials did not consider the rain severe enough to cause a problem the week of July 15, he said.
Even if the state had done testing July 15, results typically take 24 hours, so they would not have made a difference for visitors to Fairview Beach that day.
While officials don't need to wait for test results to issue advisories for sewage spills or health emergencies, Morehead acknowledged the inconvenience of the delay for regular samples. But there is no EPA-approved method for faster results.
Two national environmental advocacy groups and Los Angeles County sued EPA for missing its 2005 deadline to update national bacteria criteria and test methods. Current standards are based on studies from 1986. The settlement requires EPA to publish new criteria by October 2012, including a validated "rapid test method" for bacteria with a turnaround time of no more than six hours.
But states still won't be required to use the new, quicker tests, even though the federal government has been documenting the rise of recreational-water illnesses for decades.
In a 2006 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, scientists concluded that infections associated with recreational water use have risen steadily over the past three decades. The CDC attributed the rise to the emergence of new waterborne pathogens, coupled with inadequate water quality monitoring and more public swimming. The report called for increased government resources for better, speedier sampling and testing, as well as increased public education and awareness.
In its report "Bad Water 2009: The Impact on Human Health in the Chesapeake Bay Region," the Chesapeake Bay Foundation noted that Maryland and Virginia issued 54 no-swimming advisories and beach closures in 2008, triggered by unsafe bacteria levels, usually after a major rainfall.
News21 reporters Sharon Behn, Zettler Clay, Daniela Feldman, Allison Frick, Jennifer Hlad, Brian Hooks, Megan Pratz, Justin Karp and Jason Lenhart contributed to this report.