COLUMBIA — Thirty-seven Canada geese, scattered in uneven rows, float effortlessly across Katy Lake, a relatively small body of water surrounded by houses on Columbia’s south side. On this particular Saturday, they remain undisturbed; not a single person interrupts their quiet swim. But the rowboats tied to short docks at the edges of the lake are testaments to its role in neighborhood recreation.
Peter Motavelli’s house sits on a wide slope leading down to the lake, where neighbors often fish, swim and gather to watch waterfowl. But he is one of few in the neighborhood who are aware that Katy Lake, and a host of other residential lakes around the city, are regularly tested for E. coli and fecal coliform. He’s glad the Columbia/Boone County Health Department conducts the tests.
“Water quality is very important because it not only affects recreational activities and poses a hazard to humans and wildlife, but it also affects the value of homes in the subdivision,” Motavelli said.
The city for about 15 years has been testing the water in local lakes and streams, especially for E. coli and fecal coliform, which are forms of bacteria that live in the intestines of humans and other animals and leave the body through feces. The list of water bodies regularly tested during warm-weather months is long and includes Hillcreek, Queen Ann, Cedar and Woodrail lakes, as well as Twin Lakes and Hinkson Creek.
“We feel that we are doing a good community service,” said Gerry Worley, environmental health manager for the department. “We have tried to do the more active ones that have public beaches on them.”
Environmental health specialists start the testing process by collecting less than a pint of water from each in sterilized containers. Lab analysts then place samples in a petri dish with a gelatinous substance called agar to see if they grow colonies of E. coli and fecal coliform. The tests, which generally are conducted about five times a month during the spring and summer, allow the Health Department to judge the overall quality of the lake or stream. And while single tests might detect a short-term problem, the department relies on multiple tests to make any broader determinations about a body of water.
Standards from the Environmental Protection Agency say levels of fecal coliform should not exceed 200 parts per 100 milliliters of water; E. coli should not exceed 126 parts per 100 milliliters of water.
Worley said it’s not unusual for pathogen levels to exceed those standards after significant rainfalls.
“We have spikes from time to time, and we will typically retest the next week,” Worley said. “These are basic indicators. We would rather look at it in the long term.”
This August, several residential lakes, including Katy, Queen Ann and Hillcreek lakes, were found to have elevated counts of fecal coliform or E. coli. Fecal coliform can cause diseases such as hepatitis A, bacterial gastroenteritis and dysentery, while E. coli can cause severe diarrhea and advance to serious illness.
Worley said that although such contaminants can enter the water through leaky sewer pipes or septic tanks, he thinks the levels found during the summer tests most likely were caused by rain washing goose excrement into the lakes.
“Geese have a tendency to defecate all over the place,” Worley said. “If you have a downpour, that fecal coliform washes into the lake.”
The higher counts of a few residential lakes in August prompted the Health Department to retest. In September, Katy Lake was the only body of water to be tested, and it was found to have 36 parts of fecal coliform per 100 milliliters of water. This was a vast improvement over the “too numerous to count” designation it was given a month before. Further samples also were taken from Hillcreek Lake on Aug. 28, after it was found to have 366 parts of fecal coliform per 100 milliliters earlier in the month. The latter test showed the levels had dropped to 53 parts per 100 milliliters.
“When the levels are higher randomly, we have to look at the weather patterns over a longer period of time. We look at several tests instead of focusing on one,” Health Department spokeswoman Deidre Wood said.
The tests are also important for people who use public lakes for recreation. On Saturday, Chris Favanna was out at Twin Lakes Recreation Area walking her two cairn terriers, Zach and Zoe, who jumped in the lake several times to retrieve a tennis ball and were wet and covered with grass by the time they were finished. Favanna, however, worries about the quality of the water, both at Twin Lakes and at Woodrail Lake, which is also near her home. Although she does think that Twin Lakes is safer for her dogs than Woodrail, where “the dogs can’t get in” because of its steep banks and low water levels, she still has concerns.
“When I get home, I wash them off in the tub real well,” said Favanna, who was unaware that the city conducts regular water tests.
“If they are doing it, that’s good,” she said.
Some Columbia residents are taking a more proactive approach than simply checking Health Department test results. Residents along Hinkson Creek, for example, have joined a group known as the Stream Team, which tests water quality by monitoring insect populations in the stream. Hinkson Creek is on the EPA’s list of impaired waterways.
Steve and Jeanine Pagan participate in Hinkson cleanups twice a year, once in April and once in October. Jeanine Pagan is president of the Hinkson Creek Neighborhood Association; Steve Pagan is a member of the Stream Team. During cleanups, they pick up trash in and along the stream. The next cleanup is Oct. 13.
The cleanliness of Hinkson Creek is as important to residents along the stream as the quality of residential lakes are for people in those neighborhoods. People who live along the Hinkson walk in it, kayak in it when water levels are higher and even catch crawfish.
“Kids who walk in it look for crawfish,” Jeanine Pagan said. “I don’t choose to go out there and wade right now. I do go down there and look at wildlife.”