By Michele Bakacs
This summer, water quality has been a hot topic of discussion with news about harmful algal blooms closing lakes in New Jersey. On the Lower Raritan River in Middlesex County, volunteers have been focused on sampling for another human pathogen – enterococci, an indicator of possible disease-causing bacteria in recreational waters.
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Middlesex County, the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership (LRWP), and Rutgers, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources have partnered to collect weekly water samples at Raritan River access points from Piscataway to South Amboy. These boat launches, fishing piers, and non-bathing beaches are not normally monitored by the state and, up until this summer, little information has been available about the safety of recreating on the Lower Raritan River. Public bathing beaches at lakes and at the shore are regularly monitored for pathogen levels and the information posted on state websites.
Now, due to this new water monitoring project, results for the Raritan River have been available every Friday since May, 2019. Anyone who wants to access the River over the weekend can check the website on Friday afternoons to determine if the water is safe.
The 6 sites monitored include Riverside Park in Piscataway, Rutgers Class of 1914 Boathouse in New Brunswick, Edison Boat Basin and Riverwalk, Ken Buchanan Riverfront Park in Sayreville, Raritan Bay Waterfront Park in South Amboy, and 2nd Street Park in Perth Amboy. People regularly use these sites for fishing, kayaking, canoeing, catching bait fish, crabbing, wading or even swimming on a hot day.
Enterococci bacteria live in the intestinal tracts of warm-blooded animals, including humans, and indicate possible contamination of streams and rivers by fecal waste. Sources of fecal indicator bacteria, such as enterococci, include stormwater runoff, Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs), improperly functioning wastewater treatment plants, pet waste, Canada geese, leaking septic systems, animal carcasses, and runoff from manure storage areas.
When the weather is rainy, Enterococci levels in the Lower Raritan River increase. Enterococci results are reported in Colony Forming Units or CFUs. Levels should not exceed the water quality standard of 104 cfu/100mL. Results since sampling started in May show that each site on the Lower Raritan had at least 4 exceedances above the standard. South Amboy Waterfront Park had the least number of exceedances, and Riverside Park in Piscataway had the most.
Enterococci are usually not considered harmful to humans, but their presence in the environment may indicate that other disease-causing agents such as viruses, bacteria, and protozoa may also be present. These human pathogens can causes skin or eye infections or make people sick.
Over 20 trained volunteers have helped with this first season of water monitoring. Volunteers helped collect the water quality samples, record habitat information on data sheets, and transfer the samples to the laboratory. The Interstate Environmental Commission laboratory on Staten Island analyses the samples as part of a region-wide, volunteer monitoring effort coordinated by the New York City Water Trail Association. Including volunteers on this project has helped increase public education on water quality monitoring techniques, increase the public’s understanding of how the River is being used, and the importance of access to water quality data.
Project partners plan to start tracking down the sources of hot spots on the River to determine what is causing the high pathogen levels. In addition, the public will have the opportunity to ask questions about the water quality monitoring project through a scheduled Facebook Live event. Funding for this project was provide by a Rutgers Raritan River Consortium Mini-grant program. For more information contact Michele Bakacs, Associate Professor with Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Middlesex County at firstname.lastname@example.org or 732-398-5274.