Study seeks Fountain Creek pathogen sources in response to quality violation, but health risk isn’t believed to be higher

       The upper reach of Fountain Creek could make you sick if you swim in it. The risk is highest when the water is high. But could it cause a health scourge in Colorado Springs or Pueblo? Not very likely.
       These are a few of the early findings by government scientists undertaking a $444,000 study of the upper Fountain (from south of Woodland Park to Monument Creek). The goal is to determine why the E. Coli bacteria levels in Fountain Creek have been exceeding Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards during high-water periods. E. Coli is a scientific term for waste material from humans or animals.
       One puzzler for the scientists is that preliminary sampling last summer showed the problem to be worse downstream from Manitou Springs, according to Don Stoeckel, a United States Geological Survey (USGS) microbiologist. If it had been the other way around, it would have lent more support to the theory that the main culprits are bad septic storage tanks, livestock or wild animals (because upstream Fountain Creek is more rural than downstream). “So this pattern of data indicates that we have human fecal contamination as opposed to animal. That's something we're going to look at in the next stage,” Stoeckel said. However, he pointed out that other elements could also be at work. The city's density can “crowd animals into the area near the creek. So they could be concentrating there.”
       The study is a team effort by Colorado Springs Utilities (paying $134,000 of the total cost), the City of Colorado Springs ($20,000), the Colorado Health Department ($100,000) and the USGS ($190,000).
       A public hearing to explain the study is tentatively planned for January, according to Richard Muzzy, the environmental planning manager for the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments (PPACG), the regional planning agency. The study itself will be conducted mainly by the USGS during 2008 and '09. “Once we know what's causing the high E. Coli levels, we'll know what to do,” he said.
       The state's waterways are regularly monitored, and in 2006 Fountain's upper reach was found to have levels that exceeded federal E. Coli standards. One clarification needs to be made, however: The E. Coli standard didn't exist until about three years ago. The testing previously had been for fecal coliform (which is closely related to E. Coli), and those levels have not changed noticeably for about a quarter of a century, according to Pat Edelmann, chief of the Southeastern Colorado USGS Water Science Center. “It's important for people to understand this isn't something new,” he pointed out. “The historic data does not show a big increase [in fecal coliform].”
       The E. Coli standard was created after the Colorado Health Department decided that it had failed to consider the potential for intestinal sickness resulting from “full body contact” (meaning when people immerse themselves) in a creek or river. Such exposure increases the chance of infection through open wounds or simply swallowing the water. Only after the the new standard was set at 126 E. Coli cells per 100 milleters of water was upper Fountain Creek found in violation, Edelmann explained.
       Such cautionary information should refute as a “big exaggeration” the beliefs of some people (chiefly in Pueblo) that the E. Coli violation indicates that Fountain Creek from Colorado Springs is a “sewage carrier,” he said.
       In any case, the violation put the upper Fountain on Section 303d of the Federal Clean Water Act, requiring the state to develop what's called a Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) report that defines the cause of the problem and a strategy for solving it. The study is a key part of that.
       But it won't be as easy as setting monitoring stations - Stoeckel said he expects there will be five in all - and checking back for results. Even after testing in 15 different locations and walking the entire length of the creek during preliminary sampling last summer, researchers still have no certainty of what they'll find in the main study.
       Complicating the effort is that the upper Fountain has no major “point” discharge locations (such as a large industry or a treatment plant). So researchers need to find consistent “non-point” pollution locations. The difficulty there is that these locations can mysteriously appear and disappear, Stoeckel said.
       Another oddity, as noted earlier in this story, is why the readings are higher in places (downstream) where there theoretically should be fewer problems. One possibility being considered is the impact of the frequent transient “camps” along Fountain Creek, said Edelman and Mike McCarthy, Air and Water Quality Program director for El Paso County Health.
       There is no known number for E. Coli cases from Fountain Creek. Overall, he used “sporadic” to describe how often E. Coli infection cases come in to health officials. And even when they do get a case, “we're not always able to pinpont where people got exposed,” McCarthy said.
       Also unknown is why last summer's sampling showed the E. Coli levels getting worse when the creek levels rose, Muzzy said. The thinking is that it's because waste along the creekbanks gets picked up and carried down by the higher water, but this is not yet known for a fact.
       A relatively new tool in the study effort is the capability to detect if E. Coli bacteria is human or animal. In some cases, the equipment can even distinguish one type of animal from another, Stoeckel said.
       He expects the study to start after the winter, when the creek levels get higher.

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