Is it safe to swim? How to avoid dangerously high levels of E. coli in Central Alabama’s lakes and rivers

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This is a Your Voice Your Station special report.

October 02 2021 06:00 pm

CENTRAL ALABAMA (WIAT) — For those who aren’t traveling to the Gulf Coast this summer but are looking to stay cool, inland lakes and streams are where many across Central Alabama go to swim, boat and fish.

With high temperatures, farms, industry and sewage overflows during heavy rains, however, that also means E. coli in Alabama waterways.

Coosa Riverkeeper Justinn Overton said dangerously high levels of E. coli or other water quality concerns in lakes and streams can be pretty common in the summer.

“We issued 120 water quality alerts last summer,” Overton said.

According to the CDC, E. coli is bacteria that is spread through contaminated water or food and can make you sick. The infections can range from mild to life-threatening.

The Coosa and Cahaba Riverkeepers test dozens of lakes and streams throughout Alabama for bacteria and other water quality measures throughout the summer. Overton explained if they didn’t do that, people wouldn’t know whether it’s safe to swim on any given day.

“We’re fulfilling a really important water quality gap where no one else in the middle and lower Coosa basin are providing reliable consistent bacteriological data so folks know where its safe to swim,” she said.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management emailed the following statement to CBS 42:

“While ADEM does not have a monitoring program for inland lakes and streams like we do for the beach areas, we have provided signage at numerous boat launches and other areas where the public can find information regarding water quality prior to recreating in those areas.”

A spokesperson from ADEM explained there is a monitoring program throughout the state that collects chemical, physical and biological parameters, including E. coli on a rotating three-year basis.

Alabama’s current regulations for pathogens in surface waters. (Source: ADEM)

Pell City resident Leigh Kelley said she had no idea ADEM wasn’t testing the water on a regular basis. She lives right by Lakeside Park and has concerns.

“Last summer, when we first started learning about the water and how clean, because we have two little small dogs and we were wondering about them getting in and drinking, I have just started to become aware of all of these issues that very much concern me,” said Kelley.

For people like Kelley, the Coosa Riverkeeper tests 44 sites every week from Memorial Day through Labor Day, costing the non-profit around $100,000 just to keep its Swim Guide program going.

“We don’t receive any corporation funding so we heavily rely on the people that are out on the water and the generous foundations that sponsor us,” said Abby Swain, developing coordinator for Coosa Riverkeeper.

It’s a similar struggle for the Cahaba Riverkeeper. Members of the non-profit said they test 22 sites with a budget of about $60,000.

The Cahaba Riverkeeper tests water at Living River Retreat, located just outside of Montevallo, once a week all summer long. Living River Camp Director Jenny Thagard said she relies on the Swim Guide program to keep her campers safe.

“There is no way that we could do that ourselves. We would have to have trained people to come out and take the samples and bring them to a lab… we are very dependent on them and could not do camp without that service,” Thagard explained.

Overton emphasized you can’t judge whether water is safe to swim, boat in, or even fish just by looking at it. She recommends always checking the Swim Guide before heading out, as the levels of bacteria are constantly changing.

You can find the exact E. coli levels weekly on the Coosa Riverkeeper and Cahaba Riverkeeper’s websites under “Swim Guide.”

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