E. coli is not gorgeous…it’s just making its home in the gorges.
By Andy Casler
Six Mile Creek is a popular swimming spot for Ithaca residents and college students on hot summer days, but few people know that the stream recently tested for amounts of E. coli bacteria that exceed the New York state standards for safe freshwater swimming.
Recent water testing shows that the water between Second Dam and First Dam contained 35 Colony Forming Units (cfu) of E. coli more than the state’s 235 cfu/ 100 ml limit for freshwater beaches on June 15, 2010.
According to Community Science Institute’s (CSI) online database, Six Mile Creek contained 280 cfu of E.coli per 100 ml sample, an amount of E. coli that N.Y. deems hazardous for swimmers. The polluted water was tested at Mulholland Wildflower Preserve, which is located between Second Dam and First Dam, two popular swimming spots.
The water sample was taken at the river’s base flow stage. Base flow is described as a river’s regular flow under normal conditions, which has fewer washed-in pollutants than at flood stage. During a river’s flood stage the flow is approximately two times more than base flow. When there are high water flow conditions, pollutants get carried off to the nearest body of water, which is usually a stream or a river.
Though a single test for E.coli levels above 235cfu/ 100 ml sample will get any N.Y. swimming area temporarily closed, no notice was made for the high amounts of E. coli in Six Mile. This year the swimming areas at Butter Milk Falls and Robert Treeman were each closed twice because of high E. coli levels according to Deputy Press Officer of the New York State Parks Dan Keefe.
At First Dam, there isn’t a single “No Swimming” sign posted. There is only one “No Swimming” notice at Second Dam, and the sign is only visible from one side of the dam, and not where swimmers often enter the water. At the wildflower reserve there is also only one sign posted, and cars often obscure the sign, which is positioned in a corner of the parking lot. The sign at Mulholland Wildflower Preserve lists swimming among many other prohibited activities. Along with “No Swimming,” the sign posts other ordinances that are commonly broken, either because park visitors don’t notice the poorly-placed sign or they simply don’t mind breaking the rules. Ordinances include always keeping your pet on a leash, no smoking and no swimming.
With sparsely-posted “No Swimming” signs, many Ithacans have been swimming in water that is unhealthy and could cause serious ailments. For Ithacans who do swim in Six Mile Creek, it’s not wise to enter the water after a rainstorm.
Kate Haggerty, a water quality assistant for the New York State Parks, is involved in testing local freshwater beaches. With water quality testing, “the results vary from week to week, greatly depending on weather, especially rainfall,” Haggerty says.
Since swimming in Six Mile Creek is illegal and water samples haven’t indicated an exponential rise in pollutants, the City of Ithaca is not investigating the stream’s E. coli levels or making the public aware that the water tested as too dirty for human recreation.
Symptoms of E. coli infection begin about seven days after you contract the germ. The first symptom is severe abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea-causing dehydration. The diarrhea lasts for about a day and then the infection makes sores in your intestines and leads to red, bloody stools. Bloody diarrhea can last from two to five days.
Roxanna Johnston, the watershed coordinator for Ithaca, says that for the drinking water that comes out of Six Mile Creek, E. coli levels are still low enough to not affect the quality of Ithaca’s drinking water. The water treatment plant cleans all E. coli from drinking water before it reaches any utility users. “We’re not allowed to have any E. coli at all get through the plant,” Johnston says, in regard to the drinking water that Ithacans get through the tap.
When asked about the safety of swimming in Six Mile, Johnston is more wary of the physical dangers of swimming at the dams, like jumping into the water from the gorge’s edge – as many swimmers at Second and First Dam do. But, in regards to water pollutants like E. coli, Johnston says, “I don’t think it would be necessarily unsafe to take a dip, but that all gets really qualitative. For whatever reason if your immune system is compromised it might not be as good for you.”
Andy Casler is a senior journalism major who’s not okay with grimy ish in the water. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.