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E. coli levels increasing in the Slate River watershed

Drinking water not a concern; recreation a likely source

By Katherine Nettles

The presence of unsafe levels of E. coli in certain recreational areas of the county has created several red flags for water quality experts and prompted increasing studies of the area for 2019.

E. coli (Escherichia coli) bacteria normally live in the environment, foods and intestines of healthy people and animals, but particular strains cause health complications and infections when ingested, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The first “red flags” of E. coli in the area came in 2017 and have increased since that time.

Establishing a baseline

Ashley Bembenek, a local water and soil consultant who specializes in helping watershed groups, special districts, and other government entities understand water quality data, and with other projects to protect watershed health, has been studying the Slate River Watershed for several years.

In 2011, the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition (CCWC) expanded its scope into the Slate River watershed, and Bembenek conducted the water quality data analysis and summary for the Upper Slate. “Through that process, we identified E. coli as both a stakeholder concern and as a data gap,” she says. The data available tended to indicate that E. coli was low, but the need for more information was evident.

CCWC collected E. coli data from throughout the Upper Slate River Watershed, which included the Slate River, Coal Creek and Washington Gulch. That study found all E. coli concentrations were below standard levels, but the CCWC took proactive measures, because as Bembenek says, “In a watershed like this where you have increasing recreational and overall use, you want to just make sure the status quo is maintained.”

With the baseline conditions then established, the CCWC repeated its studies in 2013 and again in 2017. 2017 was the first year in which a red flag, or higher concentration levels of E. coli, were found. Bembenek says that while the drinking water standard for E. coli is zero, a standard of 126 colonies per 100 mL is used for E. coli concentration in streams. In 2017, concentrations showed 166 colonies per 100 mL during one reading—but not in the continuous, rolling 60-day mean that they use. “So it did not meet the criteria to call it impaired, but it was over the value of the standard, and additional monitoring is now called for,” according to Bembenek.

Bembenek wants to make clear to the community that there are stream standards applied to all streams in the Crested Butte area, and that those standards have been in place at least since the state began applying numeric standards in 1991.

All streams are classified as primary contact recreation, a standard intended to protect any swimmers, fisherman, kayakers or other recreational users of the area from illness due to E. coli. That standard assumes a person might ingest an incidental amount of water, and that fewer than one in 10,000 people doing so would become ill. Children and the elderly are most susceptible, and children might be most at risk in the area, according to Bembenek.

“I’m really sensitive to all the … preschool groups that go [to the Slate River banks] there. And the recreational uses,” she says.

The United State Geological Survey (USGS) collects samples from the mouth of Coal Creek, from the gauge above the McCormick Ditch, and from the Slate downstream of McCormick Ranch Road, explains Bembenek, as well as near Baxter Gulch. USGS has sampled these areas since 1995.

As of 2017, there were a total of three red flags in the watershed, prompting the most extensive water study completed to date in 2018, which found “a lot of red flags,” says Bembenek. The uppermost location was half a mile upstream near Paradise Divide. The CCWC also sampled Poverty Gulch, Oh-Be-Joyful Creek, Coal Creek and Washington Gulch. “We found that concentrations in the Slate River upstream of Coal Creek and Slate River … had higher levels than the primary contact recreational standard. The Crested Butte corridor had concentrations that went over,” Bembenek said, and “It’s very likely that they are impaired frequently.

“The 2018 E. coli concentrations indicated that the concentrations have increased since 2011,” continues Bembenek. The sources, although difficult to determine with 100 percent certainty, are likely to come from human waste, dog waste, grazing animals such as cattle and deer, and birds. When it comes to grazing and ranching in the area, Bembenek points out, “That hasn’t changed in decades. The thing that has changed is the increase in recreational use.”

Managing the future: Remediation and education

The CCWC will expand upon its 2018 water study this summer, with support from the USFS, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District and the National Park Service. The CCWC also received grant funding on March 25 from the Upper Gunnison River Watershed Conservation District (UGRWCD), which also secures in-kind contributions from the National Park Service, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Safety (CDPHE), the BLM and the USFS to begin an expanded project scope.

This grant “expands the geographic scope, sample frequency, and adds temperature and flow monitoring to better identify potential E. coli sources, support total maximum daily load development, and to identify potential management options to support the UGRWCD Watershed Management Planning (WMP) process,” according to grant award.

But the state has the final word and will make an official determination this fall. One possibility is that the area will be identified on the state’s 303(d) list of impaired waters, used to identify and report areas of impairment to the Environmental Protection Agency as part of the Clean Water Act.

Within the human vector category there is residential waste, such as homes with onsite wastewater treatment system facilities (septic systems); recreational waste (using the woods instead of a bathroom); and that of municipal districts (wastewater treatment plants). Bembenek says the local wastewater treatment plants, both of which are tested at their point sources, are permitted and regulated by the state through the Clean Water Act. Both have met their requirements, use state-of-the-art ultraviolet treatments to remove E. coli before releasing water back out to the watershed, and are not of concern.

“They are meeting the limit. They are not the source,” says Bembenek.

Of much greater concern, particularly at this time of year, is pet waste running out of people’s yards, and from dispersed camping, “and people pooping too close to the river or not burying it,” Bembenek says.

Bembenek emphasizes the need for a Leave No Trace policy that extends to all pets, everywhere. “I don’t think people are going to the bathroom on the Lower Loop, but their dogs are,” Bembenek says. Addressing that could go a long way. Bembenek warns that the landscapes in the backcountry are not well equipped to handle pet waste either, despite the common misconception.

“When you rely on soil to treat E. coli, you are basically hoping the soil can outnumber the E. coli. Pet waste is one of the sources that we can most readily control,” says Bembenek.

She adds, “Storm water runoff from the town includes over-fertilization, pet waste, etc., and other factors can be disturbances to native vegetation, especially riparian vegetation such as the river corridor.”

Community involvement

The town of Crested Butte will organize its annual clean-up day, which recovers trash and pet waste during a Saturday in May (as yet to be determined). Mel Yemma, open space coordinator for the town of Crested Butte, says “The town just asks that people could be more active in picking up their dog poop all the time, and using proper facilities for themselves.”

Oh Be Dogful Pet Ranch will also organize a pet waste pick-up day, to be announced soon.

The Crested Butte/Mt. Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce and the USFS are currently soliciting funds from local businesses to fund portable toilets again this summer. Ashley Hom with the USFS and Ashley Upchurch with the chamber of commerce are targeting six port-a-potties placed in the area, possibly in the Slate, Washington Gulch and Cement Creek. There will be a port-a-potty at the recreation path by the bridge on town property on the north bank and at Gunsight Bridge, compliments from the Crested Butte Land Trust.

CCWC is also considering how to pursue riparian zone restoration.

Lastly, Gunnison County is considering other factors, such as residential waste from septic systems. In June 2018, Gunnison County revised its regulations and adopted the new state regulations that include septic tank inspections.

“One of the great things that the county did that was above and beyond was determine that a transfer of title … would initiate an inspection. A lot of our septic systems occur in family cabins,” says Bembenek. When cabins are passed down through family members now, that title transfer will still prompt an inspection, even if there is no technical exchange of funds. The transfer of title inspection system comes into effect August 3, 2019.

“We are lucky in this community that people support water quality and environmental health issues,” says Bembenek. “Please clean up after your pet. If you live on or near the shores of Coal Creek, please do so within a day or two. And rainstorms, or with snowmelt, they are a source of spreading [E. coli.]” she says.

For more information on the CCWC efforts, fundraising and monitoring project, visit www.coalcreek.org.

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