In every state in America, it is illegal to deposit human feces in a surface water. Poop in a creek, empty your RV sewage tank or outfall the sewage line from your cabin into a water body and hopefully you will be facing criminal charges. The reason for these laws is simple, feces of warm blooded animals harbor disease causing organisms, lots of them. Norovirus of cruise ship fame, Giardia, the beaver fever, the scourge of backpackers are among the more notorious examples. Rather than test for each and every one of these nasties, the standard test is for the fecal coliform bacteria Escherichia coli, commonly called E. coli. E. coli is used as an indicator, if it is present, the other germs are likely present as well. The lab test for fecal coliform is fairly simple and does not require a large sample size. Basically the test involves infecting a petri dish with water in question. The petri dish is incubated at human body temperature for 24 hours. Once out of the incubator the number of bacteria colonies growing in the dish are counted. The number of colonies allowed in drinking water is zero. The limit for water used for swimming or wading is 200 colonies.
Your gut contains many different strains of E. coli. Most are harmless fellow travels that cause us no grief. There are some strains of E. coli can be deadly killers. E. coli strain O157 H7 is a usual suspect in food poisoning outbreaks. The reservoir for this strain is cattle. Cattle show no symptoms from this strain, in humans it causes hemorrhagic diarrhea, the dreaded bloody runs.
Unfortunately the law that does not permit you to poop in a creek does not apply to domestic livestock out on the range. The cattle may poop wherever they like. You would expect the agencies tasked with protecting public health and safety would take aggressive action when pollution standards are exceeded as a result of livestock grazing. If you expect that, you are one naïve taxpayer. The responsible agencies have made taking action difficult and generally prefer protecting sacred cows over the public’s health and safety.
The responsible agencies have made taking action difficult and generally prefer protecting sacred cows over the public’s health and safety.
I once had a fecal coliform problem for recreation users of a creek in Utah. Rattlesnake Creek is a tributary to the Green River in Desolation and Gray Canyons. Our fecal coliform samples required 10X dilution in order to be able to count the colonies. The count was around 1,500. The creek smelled like a feedlot. The allotment is huge ~100,000 acres. The rancher lazily dumped his whole herd in this one little stream/canyon and expected the cattle to find the rest of the allotment on their own, even though it was a 4,000 foot climb to the upper, most productive grazing area.
I worked for the Price BLM office that managed the river recreation. Grazing on the Rattlesnake allotment is managed by Moab office. We dutifully filed our reports, observations and photos with Moab. They did not see a problem, declined to take action.
The hydrologist and I opted for a little guerrilla action. Fulfilling our duty to warn our recreating public of human caused hazards and polluted water, we posted brightly colored, biohazard warning signs at the river launch ramps and trailheads leading into the area. The signs advised the public not to have any contact with the waters of Rattlesnake Creek. This resulted in letters to the editors of several newspapers and Congressional representatives asking why a wilderness stream was toxic.
The resulting public outrage moved the Moab office to action. The District Manager tried to have the State of Utah prosecute the hydrologist and me for stealing water as we did not have a water right to fill 100ml sample bottles. We were also ordered not to set foot upon, make observations or photograph any lands managed by Moab office. Once we were done with that silliness, Moab had the rancher move his cows. The permit was modified so Rattlesnake Creek could only be used for trailing use to get to/from the rest of the allotment. That stipulation remains in effect over 25 years later and the rancher still complies.
Strong sunlight kills germs and can also get agencies to do their job.
Six months later Moab collected their own water samples, by helicopter no less, avoiding the easy 20 minute hike from the trail head. The fecal coliform was down to around 40. They announced in a district-wide ranchers meeting that we had obviously fabricated our results. They also said our results had to be invalid because the time of our sample was collected two days before we returned to town, and the hold time from collection to lab is only 8 hours. They were embarrassed to find out we took a field lab complete with a battery power incubator down the river and the equipment and the hydrologist were all certified. The Moab managers questioned whether the recreation users were the source of the pollution, rather than the cattle. Fortunately we had also sampled for fecal streptococcus as well as coliform. The ratio between the two established the source as most likely being cattle.
Every once in a while, we win one for truth, justice and the American way. Sometimes embarrassment can be more effective than litigation. Strong sunlight kills germs and can also get agencies to do their job.