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Adirondack Backcountry Water Testing

The headwaters of the Ausable River watershed are in the High Peaks Wilderness, an area where there has been increasing concern about overuse and impacts from improper human waste disposal. In 2016, we expanded our Porta-John Program to include popular High Peaks trailheads to address problems with human waste disposal in these areas. This program has been successful at reducing waste near trailheads. Through this work, and after discussions with partners, including the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, we determined there is a need to further study this issue. In 2017 we launched a pilot project to look at the relationship between fecal indicator bacteria and human use. By sharing the data from this project, we hope to educate the public about the importance of propertly treating backcountry water sources. 

What we tested

The primary organism we tested for is E. coli (Escherichia coli), which is an EPA recognized indicator for fecal contamination of water. E. coli are found in the lower intestine of warm-blooded animals. Most strains of E. coli are harmless, but their presence indicates the possibilty that other harmful organisms or pathogens may be in the water. 

The New York State standard for E. coli in water at beaches is 235 colonies per 100mL of water. The US Environmental Protection Agency offers two standards for beaches 190 or 235. These standards are derived from studies looking at the illness rate per 1,000 primary contact recreationists. At 235 colonies per 100mL, 36 out of 1,000 people were reported as ill. And at 190 colonies per 100mL, 32 out of 1,000 people were reported as ill.

Both the state and federal drinking water standard for  E. coli is 0 colonies per 100mL. 

The take home message

  • Results above 0 colonies per 100mL indicate water in unsafe to drink without treatment
  • Results from 190 to 235 colonies per 100mL should warrant caution for recreational contact
  • Results above 235 colonies per 100mL  should avoid recreational contact

Where we tested

We chose ten sites across a gradient of human use. Sites like Indian Falls and Marcy Dam receive a lot of use, have high trail density, and have a high incidence of reported improper waste disposal. On the other end of the spectrum are sites like Bear Cubby Brook and Hogback Brook, both have no trails in their watersheds. You can click on the points on the map above to see the results from our testing. We hope to have additional funding in the future to continue these tests. 

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