Results have shown, however, by EPD standards, the Etowah River does meet the criteria for polluted streams. Three collection sites along the Etowah were used in the monitoring process -- two sites in Rome and one in Bartow at the U.S. 411 bridge in Kingston.
The testing, described by CRBI as the most comprehensive monitoring project on the Etowah to their knowledge, will continue over the coming year to offer up-to-date information throughout the recreational season.
"I don't know of any other studies that have been this comprehensive, so it is unique in that we did it for six months, once every week," said Joe Cook, CRBI executive director. "We wanted to provide information to river users about the safety of the river. ... The other objective was to find out what was really going on on the Etowah as far as bacteria levels because the state has identified it as a polluted stream for high bacteria levels"
Although the polluted stream classification sounds alarming, data showed a vast majority of samples within the safe realm of E. coli levels. EPD standards require only 10 percent of samplings to fall outside of safe bacteria levels to earn the title of polluted stream. A correlation was found between each of the high bacteria readings and the occurrence of heavy rain events.
"We thought we were getting results that would show that it wasn't polluted, but based on the EPD standards, if the river exceeds the bacteria standards more than 10 percent of the time, they consider it being impacted by that particular pollutant," Cook said. "The results we came up with show that 90 percent of the time it's completely safe to swim in the Etowah River. In 24 out of 27 testing events, we came out with bacteria levels that were below the EPD standards.
"I swim in the river, I play in the river every time we go out and paddle and I've never gotten sick -- I allow my daughter to get in the water and play. But, after a heavy rain, I might be less inclined to do that. ... If you want to play it safe, then don't swim after a heavy rain because that's when your risks are going to be the highest."
Pollutants found in the river following heavy rains originate from a variety of sources, this type of pollution is known as nonpoint source pollution. Water sources are necessary for agricultural pursuits, which can lead to pollutants from livestock manure and fertilizers. Other sources may be failing septic tanks and sewage overflows.
"The source is associated with rain events -- perhaps animal waste or perhaps a sewage overflow during rain when stormwater infiltrates sewer lines." said David Promis, CRBI program coordinator. "While you can't pin all the pollution on cows, keeping livestock out of the water and off river banks would improve water quality and allow plants to regrow along the river banks trampled by cows."
CRBI has identified several locations along the river where cattle and livestock are allowed direct access to the water increasing the likelihood for water contamination. Cook urges farmers to bring water to their livestock rather than bringing animals to the water. CRBI offers to help farmers interested in seeking federal programs to assist in the cost of making the transition.
Once cattle and other livestock are removed from the river bank, vegetation is allowed to regrow providing a buffer between the river and possible pollutants. Runoff also can prove harmful to water conditions from pet excrement and geese near the river.
CRBI is a Rome-based nonprofit advocating for area water sources, educating the public on water resources and leading cleanup efforts along area rivers. A cleanup will be held Saturday at Rome's Heritage Park. Registration will be held from 8 to 9 a.m. with the cleanup lasting from 9 a.m. to noon.
CRBI's 10th annual Fish Fry will be held Saturday, Nov. 12, at Rome First United Methodist Church from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Catfish dinners will be $9 a plate for adults and $7 a plate for children benefiting CRBI efforts, including continued water monitoring along the Etowah.
For more information, visit www.coosa.org or call 706-232-2724.