News press

September 20, 2017

Hurricane Irma update: High levels of bacteria found in Caloosahatchee River

By: Chad Gillis

http://www.news-press.com/story/news/2017/09/20/dirty-water-high-bacteria-levels-found-caloosahatchee/685619001/

 

Water samples from several locations in the Caloosahatchee River show elevated levels of bacteria have washed into the river in the wake of Hurricane Irma. 

Although local beaches tested clean recently, waters near the Centennial Park boat ramp and Billy's Creek were tested by Calusa Waterkeeper, a water quality watchdog group based in Fort Myers, that showed high levels of coliform and e coli. 

The samples were processed at Florida Gulf Coast University's Buckingham laboratory. 

"(Downtown) Fort Myers is off the charts for total coliform and e coli," said John Cassani, who took the samples. "Itís just a terrible mess right now: public health problems and ecological problems."

Coliform and e coli come from the intestines of birds, animals and humans, and the tests are conducted to see if and how much of each is flowing into local waterways. 

For more coverage of Hurricane Irma and the storm's aftermath visit: news-press.com/hurricane.

The Environmental Protection Agency says e coli can occur naturally in soils and even at sandy beaches along the Gulf of Mexico. 

Cassani and others are concerned that the coliform and e coli could be signs of raw sewage backups in Fort Myers last week, or possibly a leak in the city's sewer system. 

Some of that untreated sewage that backed up after Irma made its way into the river. 

But some water quality scientists say the bacteria is likely coming from animal and pet waste that has sat on the landscape for some time.

More: Irma update: Raw sewage backs up in neighborhoods across Lee County

More: Health Dept: Lee County beaches testing 'normal' after Hurricane Irma

Rains from Hurricane Irma washed that waste off the landscape and into the ditches, canals and, eventually, the river. the theory goes.

Rick Bartleson, a water quality scientist at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation on Sanibel, said he talked to Cassani about the tests. 

"Whenever thereís a rainfall event the (coliform and e coli) numbers go up," Bartleson said. "Itís an indicator of sewage pollution but is also interfered with by wildlife feces, from birds and mammals."

The sewage backup in Fort Myers happened because some of the city's 200 lift stations ó pumps used to move sewage to wastewater treatment plants ó were without power. 

"It doesnít mean there is (an active) sewage leak," Bartleson said.

Fort Myers spokeswoman Kirsten O'Donnell said there are 10 lift stations without power, but that eight of those are being operated by generators. 

"I think anytime you have a significant rain event like that youíre going to have more things in the water," O'Donnell said. 

More: Hurricane Irma update: What's that smell?

More: Gov. Scott visits Everglades City, Immokalee to assess Hurricane Irma damage, needs

Bartleson said he thinks the elevated bacteria levels are due to storm water runoff carrying that bacteria in large volumes to the Caloosahatchee. 

"We found high enterococcus (another indicator of untreated sewage) running off all kind of places that werenít near sewer plants," Bartleson said. "It's from birds and animals. And itís just not that good of an indicator of human sewage. You could have a couple hundred cows in an area and theyíre not wearing diapers."

Still, Cassani said he would avoid waters in the river, especially in the downtown area. 

"Donít go near the water," Cassani said of the Caloosahatchee River. "Donít get it on you. Iíd say for the next several weeks at least, donít go near the water if youíre interested in your health."