Article courtesy of T.S. Jarmusz | October 29, 2015 | Gillette News Record | Shared as educational material
For the last 15 years, Donkey Creek has been on the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s 303(d) list — one that means the water quality is poor.
In this case, there’s too much E. coli in the creek. Stone Pile Creek, also in Gillette, has been on the list for the last 13 years.
Sampling from 2010 to 2013 found both creeks to be over the allowable threshold, said Jennifer Hinkhouse, district manager of the Campbell County Conservation District.
Donkey Creek exceeded the limit 96 percent of time during the sampling. Stone Pile exceeded it 86 percent of the time, she said.
Since the original listings, neither creek has ever been clean enough to de-list, Hinkhouse said.
The Conservation District is in the middle of a two-year-long project doing water sampling at different locations. The project is grant funded through the Wyoming Department of Agriculture.
Until recently, when members of the district would test water quality levels by examining total coliform levels, which was the method DEQ preferred.
But while testing could determine E. coli was present, it wouldn’t discern if the source was human or wildlife, she said.
“We would know it was there, but not where it was coming from,” she said.
While one can’t stop all wildlife from doing its business, sources of human origin can be reduced.
Most of the human made E. coli found comes from leaking septic tanks or pipes, Hinkhouse said. The city’s wastewater treatment facility also is allowed to discharge a limited amount of treated water, she said.
If homeowners were to have a leaky septic tank, it’s likely they wouldn’t know, she said.
While all E. coli bacteria comes from a fecal source, not all of it is harmful, Hinkhouse said.
“Not all E. coli will cause you to become ill,” Hinkhouse said. “Only certain forms.”
The presence of E. coli is more like a red flag. If it’s found, it could indicate the possibility of other harmful viruses, bacteria or pathogens, Hinkhouse said.
Because of that, people shouldn’t swim in or drink from either creek.
A new testing method may help find the source of the problem.
Recently, a technique called microbial source tracking became available to industries outside the medical field, Hinkhouse said.
The method looks for specific genetic markers, allowing researchers to determine if the source of the E. coli is human or not. In determining human origin, contamination from other forms of E. coli that can come from other warm-blooded animals, can be ruled out.
The district began using the method this year and is still testing. Members won’t know until early in 2017 if the E. coli is from human sources.
“This is a newer process,” she said. “We are hopeful it will help guide us, but we do acknowledge it’s a newer science. We’re going to have to wait and see how the results come in.”
The ongoing battle
While older septic tanks in the area have been repaired, Hinkhouse also said there was no way to tell if the E. coli was there before homes were built and monitoring began.
She admitted that finding the source of the problem is as difficult as solving it.
“The goal is not eradication. It’s an unobtainable goal,” she said. “Science is improving … but to pinpoint this problem 100 percent is a long process. We’re trying to eliminate the obvious ones, then look at if there’s something we missed or something else we can do.”
Still, every effort helps, she said.
“If it turns out the E. coli is not from a human source, we know we’re doing everything right,” she said.
Until the results are in, the Conservation District will continue working with the DEQ on plans and methods to combat the issue, she said.
“It’s just one step in improving the water quality and making it safer for the residents of Gillette, Campbell County and everyone downstream too,” Hinkhouse said.