James Pinsky: Careful where you go – it does matter

We do it. Horses do it. Dogs do it. Birds do it. And yes, to finally answer the age-old question even bears do it, and in the woods no less.

Yes, we all – you know, go.

It’s not usually a discussion topic past sixth grade, but maybe it ought to be because where we go, critters included, matters. I’m sure we can all think of quite a few reasons why, but if the quality of our drinking water wasn’t the first one keep reading …

When we, you know – go – we leave a part of us behind that we just don’t need anymore. The trouble is one of those things is a pesky little fellow called escherichia coli, or E. coli to its friends. E. coli is a type of bacteria that can be found in the intestines of perfectly healthy animals, including humans, and for the most part is harmless. However, some strains, especially E. coli O157:H7, are quite harmful to humans, causing illnesses with symptoms like severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting. E. coli found in human and animal waste can make us sick, so where we, you know – go, matters because where we leave our waste we leave E.coli, and left unchecked it will find its way into our soil and water.

For the most part, humans do a pretty good job of making sure E. coli lives the rest of its life in solitary confinement, meeting its demise at the hands, uh – gloved hands, of waste water treatment plants, septic tanks or other sanitation processes. The thing is E.coli loves nature as much as we do and when outdoor critters, you know – go, E.coli is there as well. So, being the good stewards of natural resources we are, it is up to us to make sure our farm animals like our cattle, sheep and goats do their business in places where they are the least likely to contaminate our rivers, streams and other water sources.

Unfortunately, in many parts of our region, our efforts to flush E.coli out of our lives have failed. According to Nesha McRae, non-point source TMDL coordinator in the  valley regional office of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), tributaries of the Shenandoah River including Crooked, Stephens, West Runs and Willow Brook were identified in Virginia’s Water Quality Assessment Integrated Report as impaired for violations of the E.coli bacteria water quality standard.

McRae said the E.coli poses a human health risk for people having primary contact with the water.

“The high levels of bacteria we are seeing in the water tell us that there is animal and human waste in the river,” said McRae who identified failing septic systems, straight pipes, wildlife, and livestock are the main sources for the contamination.

She added that waste from humans, livestock, pets and wildlife can also transmit diseases such as hepatitis A and giardiasis.

Like I said, where we, you know – go, matters. While E.coli is a problem now, it doesn’t have to be a problem in the future. In fact, McRae and many others at DEQ, along with the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District are fighting back to rid our rivers, stream and other waterways of E.coli. We can’t do it alone, we need your help.

At 6:30 p.m. Jan. 28, the Lord Fairfax Community College’s Carl and Emily Thompson Conference Center, there’s a public meeting to initiate a water quality improvement plan for Crooked, Stephens, West Runs and Willow Brook tributaries. There we’ll all have an opportunity to learn more about what E.coli is, where it came from and how we can prevent and eliminate it. It’s a problem that impacts us all. After all we all, you know – go, but none of us want E.coli coming back.

For more information about the meeting, call Nesha McRae at 540-574-7850, or send her an email at Nesha.McRae@deq.Virginia.gov.,  or visit us at Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District, www.lfswcd.org

James Pinsky is the Education and Information Coordinator for the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District.  Contact him at 540.465.2424, ext. 104, or james.pinsky@lfswcd.org.