High Levels of Fecal Bacteria Found in Lower Raritan River

High levels of fecal bacteria have often been found at six new water sampling sites in the lower Raritan River since May, according to a Rutgers-coordinated monitoring program that included more than 20 trained volunteers.

The sites 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 swimming on a hot day. The sites are not normally monitored by the state and, until this summer, little information was available about the safety of recreational waters in the lower Raritan River area.

The water samples were tested for enterococci bacteria, which live in the intestinal tracts of people and other warm-blooded animals. Sources of fecal pollution can include stormwater runoff, combined sewer overflows, improperly functioning sewer systems, pet waste, Canada geese waste, leaking septic systems, animal carcasses and runoff from manure storage areas.

Enterococci levels should not exceed the water quality standard of 104 (colony forming units) per 100 milliliters of water for a single sample. Enterococci levels at the six sites ranged from less than 10 to more than 6,000, and analysis of the data is underway. A 30-day average from August 15 to September 12 ranged from 156 to 960 – far above what government agencies consider safe for swimming, which is no more than 30.

Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Middlesex County, the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership and Rutgers University–New Brunswick’s Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources partnered to collect weekly water samples at the six sites. The Interstate Environmental Commission analyzed the samples as part of a region-wide, volunteer monitoring effort.

Project partners plan to start tracking down the sources of river pollution hot spots to determine what is causing the high fecal bacteria levels.

When it rains, enterococci levels in the lower Raritan River increase. And while enterococci are usually not considered harmful to humans, they indicate that other disease-causing agents such as viruses, bacteria and protozoa may be in the water. These microbes can cause skin and eye infections and make people sick.

Since May, water quality test results for the lower Raritan River have been available every Friday on the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership website.The trained volunteers helped collect the water quality samples, record habitat information on data sheets and take the samples to a laboratory. Including volunteers in this project helped increase public education on water quality monitoring techniques, increase public understanding of how the river is being used and highlight the importance of access to water quality data.

The public can ask questions about the water quality monitoring project through a scheduled Facebook Live event on Oct. 17 at https://www.facebook.com/rutgersagriculturalandenvironmentalagents/. Project funding was provided by the Rutgers Raritan River Consortium Mini-grant program.

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