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There’s something in the water…

Pesticides, bacteria, E. coli, and mercury in fish. The Three Rivers that are part of Fort Wayne’s claim to fame are in bad shape.

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


About ten years ago, an organization called the Environmental Working Group released a report that scared the heck out of Fort Wayne.

Subtly titled Weed Killers By the Glass, the paper detailed investigations done in 29 cities, most of them in the Midwest, that found weed killers in the drinking water in 28 of those cities. Fort Wayne was near the top; the report said that tests of city tap water found up to nine pesticides or metabolites in a single sample of water. The most common of these was atrazine, an effective and inexpensive weed killer used in cornfields, and considered by the Environmental Protection Agency as a possible carcinogen.

To say it lit a fire under city officials would be an understatement, though at the time, it wasn’t required by law to test for pesticides in water. “It definitely had an impact,” says Chet Shastri, manager of Fort Wayne’s Three Rivers Filtration Plant. “What happened was, in 1993, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed regulation that started to require monitoring for pesticides, so we were just getting detailed information on our watershed at that time.”

The city remains very aggressive about testing for pesticides in our drinking water, but pesticides aren’t the only water quality issues plaguing our rivers. Like the rest of the nation, Fort Wayne’s rivers are best by a number of environmental and health issues, in particular high levels of mercury in fish and high levels of E. coli in the St. Joseph River.

With the high number of farms in the area, the issue of pesticides in our drinking water remains a constant concern. “By law, we’re required to test quarterly for certain types of pesticides,” says Vicky Zehr, the water quality supervisor for the Three Rivers Filtration Plant. However, during peak farming season — spring through fall — they conduct tests for agra-chemicals, specifically atrazine, on a daily basis.

The reason they test for atrazine daily is that the level of atrazine can vary, depending on where and when the sample is taken. A heavy rainfall can cause a significant spike in the level of atrazine in the water. “If the atrazine comes up high, we add a chemical called activated carbon to the water, and that reduces the atrazine level,” says Zehr.

During 2003, the Three Rivers Water Filtration Plant used 467,323 pounds of carbon, which cost approximately $207, 024. The previous year, the cost was $114, 773. I ask Chet Shastri if the sum for 2003 was too much, or if it was an acceptable amount to spend for this sort of operation. “There is no rule of thumb in that sense, because every community has different conditions that they face,” he says. “Our goal is to maintain an atrazine level below 3 micrograms per liter (the EPA limit). Every community does not have the same goal.” Though figures aren’t available yet for 2004, Shastri adds that there may a been a few days where the atrazine level was over the limit set by the EPA, but nothing significant.

There’s still a lot of controversy surrounding atrazine. Richard Wiles, Senior Vice-president of the Environmental Working Group, the same organization that released Weed Killers by the Glass, says that the price tag for powder-activated carbon used to control atrazine is a tough burden for a lot of communities. One study claimed that water utilities departments across the country spend an average of $30 million annually on powder-activated carbon. “We think you can control weeds without polluting tap water or passing on a $30 million annual price tag to the public,” says Wiles. “A lot of those water utilities departments aren’t required to do everything they do to monitor atrazine in the water. They aren’t required to test daily. They could get away with less, but they’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Another concern is E. coli, or more specifically the “bad” E. coli O157:H7 bacteria, which winds up in our rivers as a result of fecal material and can cause severe gastrointestinal illness and other diseases. Just last August, the St. Joseph Watershed Initiative released findings that showed the St. Joseph River — which provides the drinking water for over 200,000 residents of Allen County — contained a significant level of e-coli, with counts above Indiana’s recreational water standards. “The level for recreational water standards is 235 colonies per 100 milliliters of water,” says Jane Loomis, executive director of the St. Joseph River Watershed Initiative, one of a number of organizations created to tackle water quality issues in the watershed, which covers three states and over 1,000 square miles. How high was the E. coli level in the St. Joseph River? Loomis says it depends on where you test and when you test. In some places, it was below the standard. In other places… “We’ve seen levels as high as 20,000.”

Loomis explains that since 1996, they’ve seen levels of E. coli dropping regularly, but levels crept back up after the past couple of wet seasons we’ve had in the area. “We’re making progress (on the level of E. Coli), but it’s still above the recreational standards,” Loomis says. Geese feces getting washed into the St. Joseph River after rainfall were generally blamed for the increase, though in an area with a lot of farm animals, Loomis says it’s tough to detect exactly where the problem comes from. “I think that there’s probably a multitude of factors that go into it, and we’re not really clear on what all of them are and just how much a role each thing plays,” she says.

Loomis and everyone else we spoke to said that the possibility of E. coli making its way into the drinking water was extremely remote. “We test four times a day for E. coli,” Vicky Zehr says. “We also do plate counts of our whole plant, and we would notice that the bacterial count was escalating before an outbreak of E. coli, so we’re testing for that every four hours. We’re way ahead of the game on that.”

Of course, if E. coli can’t make its way into our drinking water, there’s probably a limit on how much time, energy, and money Fort Wayne wants to expend making sure E. coli levels in the St. Joseph River stay below the EPA’s recreational water standards. After all, no one swims in the St. Joseph River (not on purpose, anyway). But still an E. coli infested river running through the community is hardly desirable. “We don’t have open sewage ditches where you could get terrifically sick, but it’s not something you want to mess around with in terms of letting it get any worse,” Loomis says. “You want to have your water as clean as possible.” Fecal matter in the water poses other dangers of the bacterial kind, namely cryptosporidium and giardia, two parasites which come from the same source as E. coli (feces), can give you the same flu-like symptoms if ingested — diarrhea, headaches, fever, abdominal cramping, and nausea — and have proven highly resistant to disinfectants used to kill bacteria and viruses in drinking water.

According to some studies, it’s probably not safe to eat any fish from the rivers in the area, either. Last December, a private, non-profit organization called Environmental Defense looked at EPA data of mercury emissions. “Because of all the power plants in the Midwest, there is lots and lots of mercury that lands locally in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio,” says Michael Shore of Environmental Defense. “Plus, you all have the Great Lakes, so mercury gets into the waterways and then builds up in the food chain.” The Indiana Department of Environmental Management issues 303d reports, or fish consumption advisories, and several different species of fish in Allen County’s waterways make the list with a high level of mercury.

Mercury in fish is hardly restricted to the Midwest. The high number of coal-burning power plants in the area may mean we have high mercury emissions, but mercury — and bacteria, and other contaminants in our rivers — is a national problem. One of the issues environmentalists and public health officials face when studying issues with water quality in rivers is that every situation is unique, and every community has a different standard of water quality. “The health of a river system is like the health of a person: there are a lot of different ways they can be damaged, and there are a lot of different ways they can be repaired and restored,” says Eric Eckl of America Rivers, a national non-profit conservation organization dedicated to protecting and restoring rivers. “Most rivers in the lower 48 offer some mix of degradation and remaining integrity. There are several different flavors of pollution. It’s hard to say what’s worse. How do you assign value judgments among those things? We don’t have an answer for that, no one has ever come up with an answer to that.”

Albert Ettinger of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, adds that it’s like comparing apples and apples. “Everybody does their water-quality reports differently. Sometimes you don’t see any problems because they haven’t looked for them, or are looking for the wrong ones. It is difficult. Unfortunately, you want something simple, like an R.B.I. in baseball, but that kind of thing doesn’t exist in this field.”

What many of the experts do agree on, however, is that the rivers and water ways of the U.S. are getting dirtier. “That is particularly tragic, considering that for several decades they were getting cleaner,” says Eckl of American Rivers. “In the early 1970s, we passed the clean water act, and we did a lot of good with that for a lot of years. But in the past handful of years, as a national trend, we are documenting more and more and more polluted waters.”

Eckl says the problem is essentially pollution, exacerbated by suburban sprawl. Roads, parking lots, and paved surfaces collect pollution in the form of oil, brake fluids, and a myriad of other potential contaminants. When it rains, all that pollution gets swept into a storm drain and into the river. Plus, before the pavement was there, the rain used to be soaked into the ground. Now, since it’s all going into the sewer system, the system is overtaxed, floods, and human waste gets into the river also.

Sprawl development also drives up water demand, and river resources are increasingly stressed for water supply. “In heavily sprawled areas, you also begin to see a transformation in the natural flow of the rivers,” he adds. “They flood more quickly, and they dry up more quickly.”

To add to the problem, Eckl says that there’s been a lack of federal cooperation in keeping the rivers clean. He’s quick to point out that the government or the last two administrations can’t be held responsible for all the problems facing American rivers today, but… “We’ve seen a tremendous decline in enforcement of federal clean water laws, we’ve seen a constant pattern of new loopholes in those laws, and we have seen that Washington is not holding up its financial partnerships with states and cities on clean-up activities,” he says. “So, they’re not busting the bad guys, they’re creating new loopholes so the next guy can’t bust the bad guys, and they are not helping to fund the proactive clean-up efforts.”

However, though Eckl says we’re backsliding, the condition of rivers is far from irreversible. He sees a burgeoning movement of local river conservation organizations all around the country, and that though there may seem a lot to be worried about, there’s no reason to be despondent. “Rivers are very dynamic resources that respond well to efforts to make them better,” he says. “There are opportunities for everyone to play a part.”

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