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Nature Nut: Austin’s Cedar River fails the pollution test

September 23, 2018

It was a nice July day, but more importantly, it followed an overnight rain throughout the area. That was enough for Larry Dolphin to mobilize a crew to test the headwaters of the Cedar River in Dodge County. I was invited to join the effort.

Larry, a good friend and former director of Hormel Nature Center in Austin, had been working for years trying clean up the Cedar River, which flows through Austin, with a tributary flowing through the nature center grounds. Larry wasn’t as concerned about any litter he might see in or along the river, but worried about the pollutants he couldn’t see in the water.

Larry’s interest in a clean Cedar River began back in the 1980s. Now, in retirement, he has devoted time to that effort. With a three-year Cedar River Pilot Project McKnight Grant given to the Izaak Walton League, Larry and others have been able to quantify the unseen pollution in the Cedar and its tributaries.

Doing so has involved taking hundreds water samples throughout the watershed and testing them for E. coli bacteria. This is done following a standard protocol of placing a drop of water on a card with a pink circle embedded with “bacteria food.” Incubated for only a few hours, E. coli can quickly multiply and show up as dark spots on the pink “food.” It should be noted that E. coli bacteria are an important part of a healthy gut in humans and other animals, but that there are strains of E. coli that can be harmful.

Fewer than two spots must appear to meet the acceptable water standard. Many of the hundreds of samples that Larry and his crew have taken during the past two years have shown dozens of spots. But it is hard telling where the bacteria has come from without honing in on it a bit, something the grant supports with expensive genetic tests done in a Florida lab. The lab can zero in on E. coli and determine its source, whether it be human, pigs or cattle.

Last year, tests throughout Mower County indicated 70 percent of samples exceeded health standards, with an EPA study indicating that exceeding standards can lead to waterborne illness in humans. As a result, Larry has encouraged canoeists to wash their hands with soap and water after exposure in Austin rivers and streams. The same goes for seventh graders doing macro-invertebrate studies in the creek flowing through the Hormel Nature Center grounds.

To help address this problem, Larry and the Ikes have been encouraging the Mower County Board of Commissioners to come up with a multi-year plan to assess the more than 1,700 private septic systems to see if they meet standards. It is assumed that many of the older uninspected systems don’t, with some running human wastes directly into road ditches, tile lines and streams. One such site from three residences even showed toilet paper coming out of the pipe directly into a Cedar River tributary.

The water sampling I was a part of was at five stream sites in Dodge County, the location of the headwaters for the Cedar River, and dozens of large hog operations that produce millions of gallons of sewage yearly. With Larry and me were Herman Beede, a rural Dodge County resident, and Bill Buckley, an Austin Izaak Walton member. Testing was done purposely after a rain event, as data clearly shows a flushing of bacteria-laden water into the Cedar after rain, with a correlation between the amount of rain and the amount of bacteria. The genetic testing report for Dodge County found pig E. coli in all but one of the five locations, human E. coli in 4 out of 5, and cattle E. coli in 1 out of 5.

I played devil’s advocate when talking with Larry about the testing and asked if the E. coli from humans and livestock is really a problem. He said he wanted the river to be swimmable and neither he, nor members of the Ike’s Board, would swim in the Cedar or its tributaries. Surprisingly, Larry indicated that “testing indicates the best place to swim in Austin is right below the sewage plant.”

Although there are ways to properly handle human waste to avoid polluting public waters, handling livestock waste is trickier. So, I am glad Larry, the Ikes, and others are working on both. Next year, I hope to work with local Ikes to see how the Zumbro fares, with E. coli tests on Silver Lake and other stretches of the river.

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