By Peter H. Milliken
High E. coli bacteria levels are sometimes found in water samples collected near Mill Creek’s Columbiana County origin, far upstream from Mahoning County’s Boardman wastewater treatment plant and Youngstown’s combined storm and sanitary sewer overflows.
The widely fluctuating findings are based on recently released results from samples collected by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency between May and October 2013, as part of a watershed study, for which the report is still being completed.
The readings indicate a multi-faceted watershed quality problem, with failing septic systems and agricultural and lawn fertilizer runoff as contributors, environmental and public health officials say.
E. coli is found in the feces of mammals. Counts in samples taken where state Route 164 crosses Mill Creek in Columbiana ranged from a low of 160 per 100 milliliters of creek water June 19 to a high of 10,000 Oct. 7, with a July 9 reading of 2,700.
OEPA considers E. coli readings greater than 576 a potential public- health risk.
One hundred milliliters is about 3.4 ounces.
Here are some other Mill Creek locations and E. coli readings obtained:
At old State Route 14 in Columbiana, the readings ranged from 280 on Sept. 18 to 6,500 on July 9.
At Western Reserve Road, the range was from 450 Aug. 13 to 8,700 July 9.
One-tenth of a mile upstream from the Boardman Wastewater Treatment Plant, the range was from 360 June 19 to 8,200 July 9.
One-tenth of a mile downstream from that treatment plant, E. coli ranged from 250 June 19 to 5,200 July 9.
Three-quarters of a mile north of U.S. Route 224 in Boardman, the range was from 420 July 30 to 4,900 Oct. 7, falling back to 710 Oct. 9.
At Mill Creek Park’s Slippery Rock Bridge, which is just more than 1 mile from where Mill Creek flows into the Mahoning River, the range was from a low of 49 Sept. 18 to a high of 2,400 Oct. 7, dropping to 120 Oct. 9.
In recent years, the effluent water the Boardman Wastewater Treatment Plant discharges into Mill Creek has never exceeded the OEPA’s E. coli limit of 161, said Bill Coleman, office manager for the county sanitary engineer’s office, which operates that plant.
“The high numbers upstream tell us that the overall watershed is directly contributing to the challenges that we are seeing,” with regard to high E. coli levels in Mill Creek Park waters, said Aaron Young, Mill Creek MetroParks executive director.
The park district indefinitely closed the parks’ lakes – Newport, Cohasset and Glacier – to all recreational use July 10, after Mahoning County Board of Health tests showed high E. coli levels in Lake Newport.
This followed a massive Lake Newport fish kill after a heavy late June rain, with OEPA attributing the fish kill primarily to city combined storm and sanitary sewer overflow discharges.
The city is under an agreement with the U.S. and Ohio EPAs to make $147 million in sewer upgrades by the end of 2033, including elimination of CSOs discharging into Mill Creek.
Young said E. coli readings typically fluctuate, with higher levels after rainwater runoff transports more pollutants, such as waste from failing septic systems, lawn and farm fertilizers and city sewer overflows into Mill Creek and the lakes along it.
In 2013, when OEPA took its E. coli readings in Mill Creek, there was rainfall July 5 and 9 of about a quarter inch each, according to the National Weather Service.
On Oct. 7 of that year, 0.58 inch of rain fell here, the NWS said.
Official NWS weather information comes from the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport in Vienna.
Ryan Tekac, environmental health director at the Mahoning County Board of Health, said the water- pollution issue is a “watershed awareness problem,” and remedies will require public participation in watershed improvement efforts.
“The bacterial problems are watershedwide and include many issues Ohio EPA has no regulatory authority over, such as septic systems, agriculture and local land- use decisions,” said Linda Fee Oros, an Ohio EPA public information officer.
County health boards regulate septic systems.
“If you own a septic system, make sure you’re maintaining that system, having it pumped on a regular basis,” as determined by tank and household size, Tekac advised.
Agricultural pollution abatement is under the jurisdiction of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Soil and Water Resources, and is implemented by county Soil and Water Conservation Districts.
“Active participation in restoration by all watershed residents is also needed and will require local assistance to address septic system issues, agricultural issues, as well as land-use decisions,” Oros concluded.