2022 Water Quality Monitoring Data Summary
River Testing Summary 2023 -Rainy Summer Results in Higher Bacterial Counts Due to Stormwater Runoff
Numbers indicate colonies of fecal coliform bacteria per 100 mL of water
Numbers in RED exceed Massachusetts threshold for swimming (200+ per 100 mL)
Massachusetts threshold for shellfish is 14+ per 100 mL and for drinking water is 0 per 100 mL
2023 Summary of Water Quality Monitoring Results
The WRWA has been sampling water quality at 19 sites along the Westport River and contributing streams for more than 20 years to evaluate the health of the river. We test the Westport River weekly from June-August. Bacteria levels can change by the day; each week’s results refer only to conditions the morning on which the samples were taken. We monitor a type of bacteria used for swimming and shellfishing standards, which have specific concentrations that are considered safe for humans, reported in cfu or colony forming units.
Bacteria levels are typically elevated during wet weather events,. A good precaution to take includes avoiding swimming right after a heavy rain. During dry weather, bacteria levels are typically low and the River is usually considered safe for swimming. A fecal coliform test is used to determine whether water has been contaminated with fecal matter. The presence of fecal coliform indicates the possible presence of organisms that can cause illness. The EPA has set acceptable limits for fecal coliform in water based upon the use of the water. For example, drinking water cannot contain any fecal coliform but water for swimming may contain up to 200 fecal coliform colonies/ 100 ml.
By analyzing the 2023 data, we found that roughly 22% of our samples exceeded the safe swimming standards (primary contact recreation) this summer. Compared against last year, when we found only an 8% exceedance rate for swimming, this may seem like a concerning rise. However, the increase is not surprising given the large amount of rain this summer. This summer (June-August) we recorded 16.94 inches of rain at the River Center with some intense downpours. In 2022, we experienced a very dry summer, with about 6.2 inches of rain bringing less bacteria into the watershed via runoff.
How do fecal coliforms get into rivers, streams and lakes? Large amounts of fecal coliform are released in the waste of animals and can be washed into streams by runoff from rain. Paved areas contribute to fecal coliform contamination when wastes from dogs, cats, geese, and other animals are carried into storm drains, streams, rivers and lakes during storms.
Over the years bacteria counts have diminished in the rivers due to Title V septic improvements and improved treatment and minimization of stormwater runoff – all of which the WRWA has advocated for using these data to make the case for reducing pollution sources.
Bacteria levels are typically elevated during wet weather events, a good precaution to take includes avoiding swimming right after a heavy rain. During dry weather, bacteria levels are typically low and the River is usually considered safe for swimming. A fecal coliform test is used to determine whether water has been contaminated with fecal matter. The presence of fecal coliform indicates the possible presence of organisms that can cause illness. The EPA has set acceptable limits for fecal coliform in water based upon the use of the water. For example, drinking water cannot contain any fecal coliform but water for swimming may contain up to 200 fecal coliform colonies/ 100 ml.
What is going on at the Head of Westport? This summer there was lots of activity at the Head of Westport including resetting and repair of the stone walls that line the River at the Head. Also this spring and summer a gaggle of Canada geese have taken up residence at the Head Landing. The group totaling 18 or so geese have been staying around the area all summer. Their waste/dropping have been located all over the grassy areas of the landing.
Canada geese pose a potential threat to human health and safety. There has been speculation from public resource managers, citizens, and the media that Canada geese can transmit diseases to humans through direct contact with feces or through waterborne disease transmission. Although scientific studies have shown Canada goose feces to possess human pathogens such as Cryptosporidium species, Giardia species, Salmonella species, and E. coli, the potential risk of transmission to humans is not well understood. However, drinking water reservoirs and swimming areas have been temporarily closed due to high levels of bacteria attributed to goose feces.
Why are the geese hanging out? The geese causing problems were thought to be near extinction not so long ago, so they were protected, and populations have grown in Massachusetts. These are not the migratory geese seen flying south in a V-formation every fall. The Canada geese that hang around all year are called resident geese and tend to be bigger than migratory geese, live longer and have more young. They eat grass voraciously, and each adult can produce a pound or more of feces per day.
Fecal coliform bacteria testing is used by regulators and scientists to assess surface waters for recreational use, shell fishing, and potability (ability to be safely consumed). Federal regulations stipulate maximum allowable numbers of these bacteria for various uses. If fecal coliform counts are high (over 200 colonies per 100 ml of water sample) in the river or stream, there is a greater chance that pathogenic organisms are also present. A person swimming in such water has a greater chance of getting sick from swallowing disease-causing organisms, or from pathogens entering the body through cuts in skin, the nose, mouth, or the ears. Diseases and illnesses such as typhoid fever, hepatitis, gastroenteritis, dysentery, and ear infections can be contracted in waters with high fecal coliform counts.
Over the years bacteria counts have diminished in the river due to Title V septic improvements, better manure management and farming practices, and improved treatment and minimization of stormwater runoff – all of which the WRWA has advocated for, using our data to make the case for reducing pollution sources.
WRWA Sample Site Locations
So, what’s polluting the water and how can this be fixed? What we need to come to terms with is that water resource ailments have one thing in common: the source of contamination. That source is mainly us.
Through our daily activities, we inadvertently pollute our own precious water resources with the many pollutants we leave on the landscape that wash into the water. These include lawn and agricultural fertilizers, antifreeze and oil from our cars, pet waste and our own waste. Much of the damage is done by water washing off streets and parking lots. Because the rainwater in the streets can’t be absorbed into the ground where the soil filters and treats most of the pollution, it simply washes the pollution off of these hard surfaces and into our waterways.
Another big contributor to water pollution is failing and inadequate septic systems, and cesspools that contaminate the groundwater that feeds into our rivers, ponds, and beaches.
The good news is: This can all be fixed. In contrast to when the area was originally developed, we now understand the process of water pollution and how to treat it. The challenge is that it will take money, effort and a lot of political will to make it happen. Water needs to be diverted into vegetated soils rather than into rivers. Streets and parking lots need to be redesigned. And we need to be more careful about what we put onto the landscape. We need to pick up after our pets, use less lawn fertilizer and keep our cars leak-free. We need to stress to our political leaders that clean water is important our health, recreation and quality of life.
During dry weather, bacteria levels are low enough that it’s safe for swimming, boating and shellfishing (in approved areas). Bacteria levels are typically elevated during wet weather events, and good precautions to take include avoiding swimming right after a heavy rain. The big news is that years ago this wasn’t true.
The Bad News – Nutrient Pollution – A Different Beast:
The Westport River should have clean water, abundant eelgrass and vibrant estuarine life. Increasingly we have seen cloudy water, excess algae, and sometimes fishkills, the canary in the coal mine for water quality problems. The problem is nitrogen pollution and it is the greatest long-term threat to the health Westport River. We also work each year with the Buzzards Bay Coalition to monitor and measure this pollutant. For more information on results of nitrogen/nutrient testing visit: http://www.savebuzzardsbay.org/bay-health/westport/