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Citizen Water Monitoring Project Leads to Improved Public Health

A volunteer takes a water sample from the St. Louis River to test it for the presence of <em>E. coli</em>.

A volunteer takes a water sample from the St. Louis River to test it for the presence of E. coli.

Trudi Olmanson was alarmed when she looked across Lake Hallett and saw kids at a popular swimming area near the outfall of a stormwater pipe last summer. She knew sewage had spilled a few weeks before into a detention pond that drains into the lake. She wondered: could bacteria from the spill be getting into the lake and causing a health risk for those kids?

The answer was yes. Using her newfound knowledge of E. coli testing methods, Olmanson, president of the Lake Hallett Association in St. Peter, Minn., discovered high E. coli bacteria counts in water that trickled from the stormwater pipe. Although water was only supposed to flow during high water overflow periods, leaks in a seal of the aging pipe allowed a continuous stream of contaminated water to run into the lake.

Olmanson presented her test results to city public works department officials who fixed the leaky pipe with a temporary seal. The city plans to replace the pipe eventually. Lake Hallett now tests in the safe zone for E. coli.

"This is a great example of citizens collecting data and working with their local unit of government to make changes to protect surface water resources and public health," said Barbara Liukkonen, Minnesota Sea Grant's water resources educator.

Olmanson was among 45 volunteers who monitored lakes and streams in Minnesota during 2005-2007 for a research program designed to test the accuracy of different home test kits when used by volunteers. Their work was part of a larger project funded through Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service that began in 2003 in six Great Lakes states. Minnesota volunteers monitored 69 sites on 39 lakes and streams for E. coli bacteria, which is an indicator of pollution. (While many strains of E. coli are harmless, some can cause gastrointestinal illnesses in humans.)

The volunteers collected and split samples, sending half to a certified lab for analysis and testing the other half at home. In the first year of the study, volunteers in Indiana and Iowa used five different test kits. Based on lab comparisons, volunteer preferences, and cost, two kits were identified for further testing. In years 2-4, volunteers in Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin used 3M Petrifilm™, and Coliscan® Easygel®. (Iowa and Indiana volunteers continued to use all five kits.) For more information on the test kits, protocols, and results, check out: www.usawaterquality.org/volunteer/ecoli.

The project found that:

  1. Test kit results compared fairly well with certified lab analyses. (Results varied as much or sometimes more among the labs than between the volunteers and labs.)
  2. The test kits are good tools for screening and for justifying additional monitoring.
  3. Easygel®, Petrifilm™, and IDEXX kits performed similarly when data from all states were combined. Two out of three volunteers preferred Petrifilm™, over Easygel®.

Although the project was intended to evaluate the accuracy of the test kits, in Minnesota volunteers also collected useful water quality data. In 2005-2007, additional funding from the Legislative and Citizen Commission on Minnesota’s Resources allowed volunteers to collect samples weekly to determine whether the lakes and streams met state bacteria standards.

Only eight Minnesota samples (out of 150) exceeded the proposed state standard for E. coli, including samples collected from the Root River following August floods.

"Most volunteers were pleased to find that their sites had very low bacteria counts and don't present a human health risk for swimming or boating," said Liukkonen.

Over 60 percent of volunteers reported sharing their monitoring results with neighbors and friends, 30 percent shared them with lake association leaders, another 30 percent with elected officials, and 25 percent shared results with local natural resource managers.

Project results were presented at several national and regional meetings and will be entered into the STORET national water quality database for possible use in assessing impaired waters.


By Barbara Liukkonen and Marie Zhuikov
December 2007

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