Gunpowder River tests high on bacteria levels Early data reveal no immediate risk, specialist says

July 10, 1998|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Some streams in Gunpowder River watershed show excessive bacteria -- 30 times the state's limits, in some cases -- in addition to chemical pollution, according to preliminary tests by Baltimore County environmental researchers.

The results are typical of water quality problems faced by streams locally and nationally, said Steven L. Stewart, a county environmental official. "This is not something that's a Baltimore County problem, it's fairly extensive," he said.

And while the natural resource specialist said that the results, based on samples taken in rural and suburban areas, indicate no immediate health risk, he said that no one should drink from any county stream.

"I was kind of surprised at the amount we were receiving," said Stewart of the bacteria levels, cautioning "these results are very preliminary."

As part of a two-year study, researchers began sampling 13 streams in June 1997 and completed the first round of tests in April.

The test of 16 sites found elevated levels of fecal coliform bacteria, along with dissolved phosphorus in a number of cases.

"These tests show us the areas that need investigation," said John Grace, who is with the water supply program with the Maryland Department of Environment.

Fecal coliform is a bacteria found in warm-blooded animals, and high levels of the bacteria can sicken swimmers and others who zTC come in contact with the water. Last year, the state closed Baltimore County's Miami Beach, in Middle River, because of high levels of the bacteria.

Twelve of the Gunpowder sites had average bacteria levels in excess of the state maximum, which is 200 fecal coliform per 100 milliliters of water.

Three had unusually high levels of the bacteria, one at a dairy farm on the Piney Run in Hampstead, one on an unnamed stream off Seminary Avenue and one on Long Quarter Branch in Towson.

Different testing methods

Stewart said, however, that the testing did not follow the same method the state uses in formally measuring water quality standards for fecal coliform; those tests are done over five consecutive days.

Stewart said no clear conclusions can be drawn until more samples are taken and the data are double-checked. "Based on the literature, it may not be out of the ordinary," he said.

If the findings are confirmed, the county and state will look for ways to correct the problems, Stewart said.

Data from the Gunpowder study involves streams that flow into the the Loch Raven and Pretty Boy reservoirs, which supply drinking water to more than a million metropolitan residents. But the samples do not come from the reservoirs themselves.

Researchers also stress that while some small, slow-moving tributaries may have high concentrations of bacteria and chemicals, they may not add a significant amount of pollution to the reservoirs.

In general, Grace said, although some streams have problems, "from a drinking water perspective, we think the system is pretty good."

Researchers found no clear culprit for the elevated level of pollutants. Contributors could range from deer and ducks to pets, livestock and failing septic tanks.

"As with anywhere in the country, don't drink the stream water, and after contact with stream water, wash your hands before you eat," Stewart said.

While the state doesn't have a formal standard for dissolved phosphorus levels, seemingly high readings were found in streams near the dairy farm, a golf course and the Hampstead waste water treatment plant.

Phosphorus, which can come from fertilizer or failing septic systems, can promote algae growth that taints the taste of drinking water.

Surprise over results

Charles Conklin, head of a citizens group responsible for reviewing the data, said he was surprised at the level of pollutants the tests indicated, but was pleased the information was coming to light. "I kept wondering what what would have happened if they hadn't initiated this study."

Researchers will continue monitoring the water until next spring, Stewart said. They also will test for pathogens Cryptosporidium and Giardia, metals such as lead, zinc and arsenic, and elements such as nitrogen.

Pub Date: 7/10/98

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