News Release 119

Rising waters could lead to bacteria risk

Volume 38-119 (For Immediate Release)
Contact: Judd Slivka

Fast-moving waters aren’t the only concern while the state’s rivers are in flood stage.

Rising stream waters may have elevated bacterial counts. As the rivers escape their channels, they often spread through the batture lands – the areas between a river’s natural low-water bank and a levee – and can pick up sources of bacteria that normally wouldn’t make it into the river. Since those areas are often prime flyways and animal habitat, much of this biological material often comes from ducks, geese and other animals. It also can come from wastewater treatment plants.

Rising river stages can also mean that a river or stream will pick up and carry away anything in its way. At times, that’s meant cows, homes and even railway cars. If the waters cover a source of bacteria, such as a landfill or stagnant stock pond, that bacteria can be added to the stream’s contents.

For example, a rising Missouri River last Friday caused a sewage backup in Atchison, Kan. Untreated sewage, unable to reach the city’s wastewater treatment facility because of pressure in the sewage pipes, discharged through manhole covers and ran directly into the Missouri River.

Preliminary sampling results done by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources Friday found that the Missouri River upstream of the Atchison bypass site had an E. coli concentration of 1,732.9 mpn/100ml. Samples from 50 feet below the bypass  showed E. coli concentrations greater than 2,419 mpn/100ml. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s single-sample maximum for human body contact is 235 mpn/100ml.

Sampling done at Weston Bend State Park, approximately 20 miles downstream from the bypass, found  E. coli levels of 980 mpn/100ml, and sampling done at the intake for the municipal water system of Kansas City, Mo., approximately found E. coli levels of 1,413 mpn/100ml.  Public water systems routinely treat their water for bacteria such as E. coli.  DNR notified downstream public drinking water systems about the bypass.

“Elevated levels show that there can be unseen dangers in the rushing and swirling waters of rivers in flood stage,” said DNR Director Mark N. Templeton. “We advise people not to be in rivers during high water, as well as avoiding contact with standing water during and shortly after the flood.”

Flood waters with high bacterial content can cause public-health problems. If contaminated water is left standing after a flood, for example, it can become a home for bacterial diseases. Or if flood waters cover the top of a well, they can seep down the well’s casing or migrate underground from one well to another, contaminating an entire area’s water supply. Areas with shallow-cased private wells that are near flooded areas can also have possible contamination.

If you do have a private well and live in or near a flooded area, be aware of any changes of taste, color or sediment changes in the water, which may indicate contamination.

If you suspect well-water contamination, immediately stop drinking the water or using it to cook or prepare food with. Switch to a known safe source, such as a community water supply or bottled water until a licensed well driller or pump installer can inspect your well to determine if the water supply is contaminated.