High bacteria level in river merits concern

he discovery of an abormally high level of E. coli, a species of fecal coliform bacteria, in the West Branch of the Susquehanna River at the public swimming beach at the foot of Vesper Street in Lock Haven is surprising.

Should it be alarming?

Tests and time will tell.

Levels of coliform in the river here have not been high in the past, so far as we can determine.

The public swimming beach has been opened each year for many years.

We cannot find a time when it was closed due to high bacteria in the river from water samples taken annually before the swimming season.

The city tests the water weekly during swim season.

What we do know is that, in the past few years, there have been areas of the Susquehanna River’s main stem at and below Sunbury that were declared impaired for fish consumption, while the West and North branches were typically called “good” in comparison.

That declaration on the river’s main stem also included a warning about swimming in the water.

The best advice now, considering the high level at the beach here, is do not ingest the river water.

Coliform bacteria are common in the environment, present in the soil, human waste and intestines of animals.

That said, a lot of Canada Geese make their home on the river here every summer. They poop in the water. They poop on the land. Just ask property owners and renters.

Nonetheless, the presence of these bacteria indicates the water may be contaminated with germs that can cause disease.

The sanitary sewage treatment system at Renovo, so far as we can determine, is working and has not committed any violations of excessive discharge or any related incident that would contribute to the high levels.

Lock Haven’s sanitary sewage plant discharges into Bald Eagle Creek, which empties into the river downriver from the beach.

The state Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Clean Water will sample five locations — four upstream from the beach and one downstream — over the next 30 days to try to pinpoint a source.

E. coli is one of the major known groups of coliform bacteria, and is the only one that is not usually found growing or reproducing in the environment, according to the state Department of Health.

Some strains can cause problems — usually serious food poisoning symptoms. The New York State Department of Health notes, “Most of the reported human cases have been due to eating undercooked hamburger.”

The Mayo Clinic reports that symptoms generally consist of diarrhea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, and sometimes fever. Particularly virulent strains can cause more serious problems, such as urinary tract infections, meningitis, colitis, and Chron’s Disease.

If E. coli infection is contracted, it typically incubates for around three days before producing symptoms, which tend to last for several days, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Treatment can include antibiotics, but mostly consists of keeping well hydrated, specificially with drinks to replenish electrolytes, as the frequent and profound diarrhea which is a hallmark of the infection dehydrates the body and depletes it of important resources.

We’re hopeful the DEP finds the source of the problem for the river as quickly as possible so swimmers and boaters alike can enjoy the short summer on and in the water here.

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