ELKHART — The recent drought has menaced crops, kept fire departments busy and forced the cancellation of Fourth of July fireworks shows, but the dry weather has actually been positive for the area’s waterways, according to the Elkhart County Health Department.
Less rain falling from the sky means fewer contaminants finding their way into the rivers and lakes, health department environmentalist Elise Pfaff said.
“If we get a heavy rain event, we get increased pollutant loads into the waterways from agriculture, livestock, wildlife or failing septic systems,” she said.
Pfaff leads a team of summer interns from Purdue University who test samples of water twice a week from April to September. Students John Diller and Abbie Merrick dunk a cylindrical sampling tube they affectionately dubbed “the bomb” into waterways throughout the county. On Tuesdays, they collect samples at a dozen spots along creeks and ditches. On Thursdays, they visit four locations on Heaton and Simonton lakes and 10 sites on the Elkhart and St. Joseph rivers. At a lab, they test for bacteria, temperature and chemicals present in the water.
“I’m always surprised by the results,” Diller said.
One of the factors that the team tests for is E. coli, a bacteria found in the waste of animals and humans. State environmental standards recommend no more than 235 colonies of E. coli per 100 milliliters of water. Anymore than that could lead to health risks.
“From a public health standpoint this is the parameter we are most concerned about due to the potential to make humans ill,” Pfaff said.
Since April, four samples from the Elkhart River and one sample from Ideal Beach have exceeded environmental standards. Pfaff pointed out, however, that a second sample was collected at the Ideal Beach location the following day that was back to normal levels. No health advisories have been issued for any of the rivers or lakes this year, she said.
Swimming-related illnesses are typically minor and require little or no treatment, according to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. The most common illness associated with swimming in contaminated water is gastroenteritis. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and pain and diarrhea among others. Swimming in contaminated water can also cause minor ear, eye, nose and throat infections.
“Anytime you swim somewhere, whether it’s a public pool or a waterway, you’ll always want to take a soapy shower afterwards,” Pfaff said. “Try not to ingest any of the water.”
The drought, however, has created a few challenges for the students collecting water samples. Water levels are low in the rivers, Diller said. The Elkhart River is about a foot lower than usual, and the St. Joseph River is more than 2 feet lower than normal, according to figures from the U.S. Geological Survey’s gauge stations.