Traditionally, the Memorial Day weekend signals the beginning of swimming season at our local pools and community beaches. While properly maintained swimming pools generally use filters and chlorine to keep the water clean, the water at our local beaches does not have the same advantage.
In the summer of 1975 ads for the film “Jaws,” with the creepy theme music playing in the background, warned everyone that it was not safe to go in the water due to the presence of a great white shark. Today, however, a high enterococci bacteria count in the water of our creeks and rivers is the reason for why it is not safe to go in the water.
There are several sources for the enterococci bacteria that are found in our waterways. In her presentation to the current Master Watershed Stewards class Dr. Sally Hornor of Anne Arundel Community College said the most common sources of bacteria are “failing septic systems or sewer lines, sanitary waste from boats, and stormwater runoff carrying domestic and wild animal waste.”
It is important to remember that waterfowl, such as ducks and Canadian geese, are considered wild animals and create quite a problem with their droppings especially when these birds reside near beaches.
Each year, from May through August, Hornor heads Operation Clearwater, which tests for the levels of the harmful enterococci bacteria at selected community beach sites along the Severn River and, beginning this week, at beach sites along the Magothy River, as well.
The regular collection of data by this program has shown that levels of enterococci bacteria increase dramatically after a rainfall. Coming in contact with water containing high levels of these bacteria can cause a number of health risks, such as gastrointestinal illnesses, skin infections, and ear infections.
The bacterial count data collected by Operation Clearwater has prompted the Anne Arundel County Health Department to issue an ongoing advisory warning that states, “After rainfall, all Anne Arundel County beaches are under a no swimming and no direct water contact advisory for 48 hours due to predicted elevated bacteria levels. Do not swim until 48 hours or until the water clears.”
There are some easy remedies to help reduce the amount of bacteria-laden waste that is entering our local bodies of water. Pet owners can clean up after their animals, boaters can responsibly empty their waste tanks at marinas with pump-out facilities, and the county Department of Public Works can be notified in the event of a sewer line leak.
Hornor told the Master Watershed Stewards class that in some instances communities have employed border collies to help chase away resident geese and ducks in order to reduce the amount of animal waste on beaches or in park areas.
Unfortunately, there are no easy or inexpensive remedies for dealing with a failing septic system. If connecting to the county sewer system is not an option there is newer technology available to replace an existing septic system.
The following links provide additional information for monitoring and reducing bacteria levels in our creeks and rivers:
Operation Clearwater: http://ola4.aacc.edu/sghornor/
Anne Arundel County Health Department: www.aahealth.org/programs/env-hlth/rec-water/risks