Recreation in the Yough: Is Bacteria a Concern?

Mountain Watershed Association has been dedicated to clean water for over 25 years. We believe the path to cleaner water uses science, education, and advocacy. Our extensive water sampling program has continued for more than 10 years. By analyzing these samples, we are able to educate ourselves and the public about the current water quality in our area. 

MWA is a member-driven grassroots organization and our members frequently voice concerns about the quality. Those voices drive and define our advocacy initiatives. In past blogs, you can read about MWA’s source water protection initiatives regarding drinking water. Our water utilities are able to properly treat the water before they send it to us, the consumer. River water, however, is in its raw form. Meaning, if you fall out of your raft or go for a swim or get splashed while you are fishing, then you are coming in contact with river water. 

Do you know what is in the water?  

Our Swimmable Waters Program was established over 5 years ago to document bacteria levels in the Youghiogheny River and surrounding tributaries. The Yough is recognized as a premiere destination for water-based activities like fishing, swimming, and paddling so we want to make sure it is safe to swim. 

Picture yourself floating down the Youghiogheny River. You are upright in your canoe or kayak while on the water. This is considered a “secondary contact” recreation activity. Floating along…the canoe has now tipped over and you are swimming. Welcome to a “Primary Contact” recreation activity! Each state sets a threshold or limit on how much bacteria can be in surface waters before deeming them unsafe to recreate in.  

The amount of bacteria in a waterway is dependent on many things. Weather, population, land use, and the presence of water treatment infrastructure are all contributing factors. The Youghiogheny Watershed has been inhabited for many years, although public water treatment utilities are virtually non-existent in many of our rural settings and small communities. The local municipalities who manage treatment systems must operate and maintain the system continuously. Those without public utilities often treat their own sewage using their on-lot septic system. These systems can work effectively, however, inspections and maintenance are required to ensure a properly functioning system. 

Surface runoff from livestock operations can lead to huge increases in concentrations of bacteria. We have found that wet weather and heavy rains are the leading variables in the bacteria levels in our river. Large rain events can overwhelm septic systems or outdated sewage infrastructure, ending in raw sewage spewing into the Yough.  

You may be wondering what happens if you swim or recreate in rivers or lakes with bacteria levels above the recommended threshold for safe swimming.

Here are a few things to think about…

  • Recreational users should avoid contact with waters known to be contaminated with fecal waste of humans or other warm blooded animals which carry diseases that are communicable to humans. 
  • The standard measure for the presence of fecal waste in ambient waters is E. coli in freshwater bodies and enterococci bacteria in saltwater bodies. These are “indicator bacteria.” They indicate the presence of fecal waste. The actual bacteria and viruses that can cause illnesses are not typically measured or analyzed. 
  • According to EPA studies, at an E. coli concentration of 126 colonies/100mL or an enterococci concentration of 35 colonies/100mL, approximately 36 in 1,000 swimmers will contract an illness; this is called an illness rate. 
  • An illness contracted while swimming, called a recreational water illness, can range from swimmer’s ear, to respiratory or gastrointestinal illnesses, and can in severe cases even result in death, for example through the contraction of brain-eating amoeba (Naegleria fowleri) 
  • Elevated levels of fecal bacteria in ambient waters are typically the result of sewage pollution, wildlife, livestock operations, failing septic systems, and pet waste. 
  • Individuals can reduce their risk of illness by avoiding contaminated waters. One way to do that is to check for recent water quality reports on platforms like SwimGuide. 
  • An estimated 4 billion surface water recreation events occur annually resulting in an estimated 90 million illnesses annually at a cost of $2.2-3.7 billion annually to the economy.

There are many ways to reduce exposure to contaminated water and to reduce the impacts that exposures have on your health. A major component to reducing exposure is to be aware of the river conditions. Is the water high or flooding?  Does the water look excessively brown or turbid? Has there been heavy rains within the last 48 hours?  

If the answer is yes, then avoid primary recreation activities like swimming. The dangers of floodwaters are not limited to the physical power of the water but include the elevated levels of pollutants that flow downstream, not present at more normal flows. Be sure to follow good hygiene recommendations if you are in contact with potentially contaminated water. Clean any scrapes or wounds well, monitor for the symptoms of waterborne illnesses, and seek proper medical care for any symptoms that are present to avoid or reduce the impact to your personal health. Each person can be affected differently, even when exposed to the same contaminated water.  

Public swimming locations will be closed when bacteria levels are too high, but only places that are considered “designated swimming locations” like Laurel Hill Lake. Locations like Cucumber Falls, Smithton Beach, or Cedar Creek Park are all heavily used but no one is mandated to post conditions or close when public health concerns are an issue.

Resources and programs exist that actively document bacteria levels and report on swimming conditions. Maryland’s healthy beaches program, the SwimGuide, and the MWA website are all examples. During the swim season, we will post the results of our sampling. The SwimGuide can be used as you travel to check if levels are safe if you’re on the Cheat River (Thanks to Friends of the Cheat), floating down the French Broad River in Asheville (Thanks French Broad Riverkeeper), or at Ocean Beach in San Diego (Thanks to the County Dept. of Envir. Health),all over the globe. 

Know before you Go!     

1 EPA Office of Water. “Recreational Water Quality Criteria.” Office of Water 820-F-12-058.

2 Ibid 

3 CDC. “Recreational Water Illnesses.” 

4 Ibid 

5 DeFlorio-Barker, Stephanie et al. “Estimate of Incidence and Cost of Recreational Waterborne Illness on United States Surface Waters.” Environmental Health 17 (2018): 3. PMC. Web. 20 Aug. 2018.