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E. coli counts high in Kabekona River

The Hubbard County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) is investigating possible sources of E. coli contamination in Kabekona River.

The Hubbard County Board was apprised of the situation at its July 18 meeting.

Following Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) protocols, SWCD staff is collecting and testing water samples from three sites along the river throughout the summer and into 2018. The sites are located near County Road 93, County State Aid Highway 36 and State Highway 200, all within Lakeport and Hendrickson townships.

Water-quality testing for E. coli and other bacteria began in August 2016, triggered after the MPCA completed a Leech Lake Watershed restoration and protection project and discovered high E. coli counts along site 93.

When testing resumed in June this year, SWCD staff was "really surprised" that E. coli counts remained high so early in the season, according to SWCD District Manager Julie Kingsley. All three sites exceed established bacteria water quality standards.

Monitoring will continue through September 2017, restarting in June and July 2018.

No grants were awarded for the testing, Kingsley said, so funding has been provided by the Kabekona Lake Foundation.

Citizens are advised not to swim, fish or recreate on this section of Kabekona River.

E. coli basics

E. coli, or Escherichia coli, bacteria normally live in the intestines of healthy people and animals. More than 700 strains have been identified. According to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and Mayo Clinic, most varieties of E. coli are harmless or cause relatively brief diarrhea. A few nasty strains can cause severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting.

Unlike many other disease-causing bacteria, E. coli can cause an infection even if only a small amount is ingested.

The current water quality standard for E. coli is a monthly average of 126 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters (mL) of water. One hundred mL is equivalent to about seven tablespoons.

When the E. coli count surpasses the established standard, the water body is considered "impaired." People using impaired waters for recreation, like swimming and fishing, are at risk for exposure to pathogens.

However, the MPCA and MDH only post impairment warnings at public swimming beaches.

"For rivers, it's not a public beach so it doesn't apply. So even though the counts are above the standards and have been above the standards, they aren't posted," Kingsley said.

She and Dan Stacey, Hubbard County Commissioner for District 4, personally met with residents in affected portions of Kabekona River.

"We talked to all the people that live in that area and said, 'Don't let the kids play in there,'" Kingsley said. "The one problem area that we know of, we've notified them. We're waiting to hear back from them. We'll start working with them to alleviate the problem with some of the programs we've got."

"At this point, SWCD is monitoring the situation and we have confidence that they will keep the citizens informed of any changes," Stacey said.

Kabekona River is a trout stream. Kingsley noted that one gentlemen was observed fishing on a bridge. He caught a brook trout that he planned to eat.

MPCA officials told Kingsley that handling a fish is a minor concern. Bacteria may be on the fish and in its slime; however, cooking the fish should kill any E. coli.

"It's about being in it and ingesting it yourself. It's not so much through your contact through your skin," Kingsley said.

Pathways to water

According to the MPCA, fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria found in rivers and streams throughout the state originate in human, pet, livestock or wildlife waste.

Factors affecting bacteria levels include seasonal weather, stream flow, water temperature, distance from pollution sources, livestock management practices, wildlife activity, age of fecal material, sewage overflows and rainfall.

The source of the Kabekona River contamination remains uncertain.

Initially, SWCD thought the issue was between sites 200 and 36, but the investigation is proceeding further upstream, Kingsley said.

Kingsley told the county board about one gentleman who is licensed to pump and spread septage on his property. This potential cause is under MPCA review.

"Just leaky septics could be influencing this, too, if there's an old system. We know there's a lot of surface water and groundwater mixing right there," Kingsley. "We also have the City of Laporte and below their sewage treatment, so there are some areas we really need to be looking at."

Through the statewide buffer initiative, SWCD identified several sites on Kabekona River that need water-quality buffer strips. Hubbard County SWCD is the local arm of government enforcing the state buffer law, offering technical assistance, answering landowner's questions and approving alternative conservation practices.

"We have identified several sites through the buffer initiative that we are going to be contacting those people and working with them to get buffers up. They don't have buffers up right now. It's all kind of tied together," Kingsley said.

The state Legislature passed the law requiring buffer strips along lakes, rivers, streams and ditches in 2015 and updated it in 2016. By Nov. 1, vegetative buffers averaging 50-feet wide must be established around public waters in Minnesota. A year later, at least 16.5-foot wide buffers must be along public ditches.

The Kabekona Lake Association (KLA) is naturally troubled by the presence of E. coli.

"We were concerned it has shown up," said KLA President Martha Vetter in a phone interview. Since there is no definitive answer regarding the source of pollution, the board has not yet reached any conclusions, Vetter said.

Concerned about the possible effect on Kabekona Lake, the lake association requested that SWCD begin sampling water at the river mouth and further into the lake.

"But I think, with as big as Kabekona Lake is, it's going to dilute it. It's not going to be a problem for the lake itself," Kingsley said.

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