When we hear the terms “E. coli” or “bacteria,” bad things come to mind. You might think of outbreaks that make us avoid prepackaged spinach or some other food product. While there are harmful strains of E. coli that can make us sick, these strains aren’t usually found in our streams. The E. coli that we are looking for is an indicator of fecal contamination, which may contain viruses that can make us sick. E. coli is an indicator because the methods to look for it are fairly easy and low-cost, and we can assume that if the E. coli counts in water are high, there is a good likelihood that there may be harmful viruses in the same area.
In both 2014 and 2015, we saw that rain can increase E. coli levels. Oftentimes, rain also raises water levels at Fisherman’s Parking Lot, making for good kayaking. That is a conflict for me personally – do I avoid possible E. coli and fecal contamination from runoff, or do I enjoy a day on the Passaic River where I can actually kayak over the beaver dam at the confluence with Black Brook?
The purpose of GSWA’s E. coli monitoring program is to see how E. coli impacts our waterbodies and convey that information to local residents. It is up to you to make your own decision about getting in the water or not. We want you to be able to make that decision with good information.
Here is how I solve my kayaking conundrum: I go kayaking after a rainstorm, but I try not to splash myself with the water. When I am done kayaking, I wash my hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and shower when I get home (which is always a good idea after a hot day kayaking anyways!). I have a pretty good immune system, and I have not gotten sick from being in any water bodies in the Great Swamp watershed region – something I do very frequently for both recreation and my job.
My personal experience is not to say you won’t get sick; it is important to evaluate the situation based on where you are going, what level of interaction is possible, and the strength of your immune system.
In case you missed it, you can see a map of where monitoring sites are located by clicking here.