This September I’m putting on my watershoes, zipping up my PFD, and dipping bottles into the river, all in the name of Enterococci (pronounced en-tr-oh-kaa-kai). I’m going down to Terwillegar Park and Accidental Beach every week to test the waters in which we wade, fish, paddle, and swim. Since these beaches are enjoyed by water watchers, dog owners, and gold panners alike, the North Saskatchewan Riverkeeper is investigating the presence of a bacteria found in the gut of diverse mammals and birds. The reason that we test for these bacteria is because they are very useful indicators for fecal contamination (more commonly known as poop!)
Nobody wants to swim, kayak, or SUP (Stand Up Paddleboard) in contaminated waters. Thanks to an Environmental Grant from RBC, I get to head down to the river once a week to test the water quality of our beautiful river to see if it meets federal water quality standards. To get technical, the Guidelines for Canadian Recreational Water Quality state that waters would fail to meet the standards if the geometric mean of 5 samples is greater than 35 enterococci coliform forming units (CFU) in 100 mL of water, or a single sample is greater than 70. Basically, if you’re exposed to water that has too much of this bacteria, you could get sick (it’s not a guarantee, just a probability).
You may be wondering what exactly enterococcus is. This bacteria is known as a
Fecal Indicator Bacteria, or a FIB. These “FIBs” aren’t liars though, they tell the truth about what’s in the water. They are round gram-positive bacteria, which grow in chains within the intestinal flora of humans and other animals. When animals release their waste, they release these bacteria along with it. Since these bacteria are relatively easy to test for, we can fill a bottle with water and test it at a laboratory for the proportion of enterococci within that sample.
Alberta Health Services test for these bacteria at beaches across the province. The provincial laboratories use a testing method called quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) to detect these microorganisms. Currently we send our samples to a local lab, Element, for processing. They use a method known as membrane filtration to test for these bacteria.
There are lots of different microorganisms and laboratory techniques to find these FIB. Some provinces use E. coli as an indicator, others use thermotolerant fecal coliforms. Perhaps sometime soon scientists will discover a new indicator bacteria for even faster and more accurate testing! But for now we are looking at Enterococci since it is the standard used in the Alberta Safe Beach Protocol as well as the Canadian Guidelines for Recreational Water Quality. Respectively, these are the provincial and federal standards outlining recreational water quality.