Bacteria are common single-celled organisms and are a natural component of lakes, rivers, and streams. Most of these bacteria are harmless to humans; however, certain bacteria, some of which normally inhabit the intestinal tract of warm-blooded animals, have the potential to cause sickness and disease in humans. High numbers of these harmless bacteria often indicate high numbers of harmful bacteria as well as other disease-causing organisms such as viruses and protozoans.
Total coliforms are gram-negative, aerobic or faculative anaerobic, nonspore forming rods. These bacteria were originally believed to indicate the presence of fecal contamination, however total coliforms have been found to be widely distributed in nature and not always associated with the gastrointestinal tract of warm blooded animals. The number of total coliform bacteria in the environment is still widely used as an indicator for potable water in the U.S.
Fecal coliform bacteria are a subgroup of coliform bacteria that were used to establish the first microbial water quality criteria. The ability to grow at an elevated temperature (44.5 C) separate this bacteria from the total coliforms and make it a more accurate indicator of fecal contamination by warm-blooded animals. Fecal- coliform bacteria are detected by counting the pink-red colonies that grow on 0.65 micron filters placed on mFC agar incubated in a 44.5 C oven for 22-24 hours. The presence of fecal coliforms in water indicates that fecal contamination of the water by a warm-blooded animal has occurred, however, recent studies have found no statistical relationship between fecal coliform concentrations and swimmer-associated sickness.
Escherichia coli (E. coli) is a rod-shaped bacteria commonly found in the gastrointestinal tract and feces of warm-blooded animals. It is a member of the fecal coliform group of bacteria and is distinguished by its inability to break down urease. E. coli numbers in freshwater are determined by counting the number of yellow and yellow brown colonies growing on a 0.45 micron filter placed on m-TEC media and incubated at 35.0 C for 22-24 hours. The addition of urea substrate confirms that colonies are E. coli. This bacteria is a preferred indicator for freshwater recreation and its presence provides direct evidence of fecal contamination from warm-blooded animals. Although usually harmless, E. coli can cause illnesses such as meningitis, septicemia, urinary tract, and intestinal infections. A recently discovered strain of E. coli (E. coli 0157:H7) can cause severe disease and may be fatal in small children and the elderly.
USEPA criteria for E.coli bacteria
National Park Service health-risk determinations
Low risk: E. coli counts of less than 177 colonies per 100 mL of water
High risk: E. coli counts above 235 colonies per 100 mL of water
Did You Know?
Little River is unique because it is the one of the few rivers in the United States that forms and flows for almost its entire length on top of a mountain.