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Occurrence of fecal-indicator bacteria and protocols for identification of fecal-contamination sources in selected reaches of the West Branch Brandywine Creek, Chester County, Pennsylvania

June 22, 2005

The presence of fecal-indicator bacteria indicates the potential presence of pathogens originating from the fecal matter of warm-blooded animals. These pathogens are responsible for numerous human diseases ranging from common diarrhea to meningitis and polio. The detection of fecal-indicator bacteria and interpretation of the resultant data are, therefore, of great importance to water-resource managers. Current (2005) techniques used to assess fecal contamination within the fluvial environment primarily assess samples collected from the water column, either as grab samples or as depth- and (or) width-integrated samples. However, current research indicates approximately 99 percent of all bacteria within nature exist as attached, or sessile, bacteria. Because of this condition, most current techniques for the detection of fecal contamination, which utilize bacteria, assess only about 1 percent of the total bacteria within the fluvial system and are, therefore, problematic. Evaluation of the environmental factors affecting the occurrence and distribution of bacteria within the fluvial system, as well as the evaluation and modification of alternative approaches that effectively quantify the larger population of sessile bacteria within fluvial sediments, will present water-resource managers with more effective tools to assess, prevent, and (or) eliminate sources of fecal contamination within pristine and impaired watersheds.

Two stream reaches on the West Branch Brandywine Creek in the Coatesville, Pa., region were studied between September 2002 and August 2003. The effects of sediment particle size, climatic conditions, aquatic growth, environmental chemistry, impervious surfaces, sediment and soil filtration, and dams on observed bacteria concentrations were evaluated. Alternative approaches were assessed to better detect geographic sources of fecal contamination including the use of turbidity as a surrogate for bacteria, the modification and implementation of sandbag bacteria samplers, and the use of optical brighteners. For the purposes of this report, sources of bacteria were defined as geographic locations where elevated concentrations of bacteria are observed within, or expected to enter, the main branch of the West Branch Brandywine Creek. Biologic sources (for example, waterfowl) were noted where applicable; however, no specific study of biologic sources (such as bacterial source tracking) was conducted.

Data indicated that specific bacterial populations within fluvial sediments could be related to specific particle-size ranges. This relation is likely the result of the reduced porosity and permeability associated with finer sediments and the ability of specific bacteria to tolerate particular environments. Escherichia coli (E. coli) showed a higher median concentration (2,160 colonies per gram of saturated sediment) in the 0.125 to 0.5-millimeter size range of natural sediments than in other ranges, and enterococcus bacteria showed a higher median concentration (61,830 colonies per gram of saturated sediment) in the 0.062 to 0.25-millimeter size range of natural sediments than in other ranges. There were insufficient data to assess the particle-size relation to fecal coliform bacteria and (or) fecal streptococcus bacteria.

Climatic conditions were shown to affect bacteria concentrations in both the water column and fluvial sediments. Drought conditions in 2002 resulted in lower overall bacteria concentrations than the more typically wet year of 2003. E. coli concentrations in fluvial sediment along the Coatesville study reach in 2002 had a median concentration of 92 colonies per gram of saturated sediment; in 2003, the median concentration had risen to 4,752 colonies per gram of saturated sediment.

Symbiotic relations between bacteria and aquatic growth were likely responsible for increased bacteria concentrations observed within an impoundment area on the Coatesville study reach. This reach showed evidence of