It’s a summertime tradition, diving into the nearest creek to cool off on a muggy afternoon. Maybe you want to remain blissfully ignorant of what’s in that water. But the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, in league with three community colleges, has set out to let you know. Not to scare you, but to educate you.
All this summer, water testers are drawing samples once a week from popular swimming spots in Harford, Howard and Frederick counties and taking them back to their labs for testing. It’s part of the foundation’s first upstream water sampling program.
What they’re finding might scare you, says Alison Prost, the bay foundation’s Maryland executive director.
"“After rain events at the different locations we’re testing, particularly in Harford or Frederick counties, those levels are way above EPA recommended bacteria levels that are safe for us to be interacting with," she said.
But Tami Iambierowicz, one of the samplers, says you shouldn’t be too alarmed, just "avoid the water within 48 hours of a rainfall because of the run-off from the land." She still swims in Deer Creek in Harford County.
Imbierowicz, who teaches biology and environmental science at Harford Community College, is taking samples from six different places—Kilgore Falls on Falling Branch and five spots along Deer Creek. She says they’re trying to educate the public that rainwater carries waste water and all sorts of nasty things into the streams and it ends up at the old swimming hole.
She says there are a lot of potential sources of bacteria; “from the soil itself, from animal waste, where there’s domestic animals, farm animals.”
You can add in failing septic systems, or anything that would have any kind of animal—human or otherwise—waste in it.
Prost says that in addition to educating people about the sources of pollution, the program aims to demonstrate that "the same issues that plague the bay and cause our summer water quality programs in the bay are not that different from the problems we see in local swimming holes that are farther upstream."
But it’s not clear whether that message is getting through. Brendan Gonski, who was swimming at Kilgore Falls one day last week, said he wasn’t concerned about the bacteria because he has "an immune system." Not only that, but "we have some pretty good medicines these days."
And it didn’t occur to him that the same bacteria that may pollute his swimming hole also is causing problems in the bay.
"In the grand scheme of things this is probably like a pretty minor contribution to the water when you get down closer to the water in Baltimore," he said.
Prost called that an example of the tragedy of the commons. People think their contribution to the problem doesn’t matter because it’s “only a little bit.”
“Everyone taking that attitude is how we got here,” she said. “There’s no one smoking gun, big source, or big one person that we can point to and say this why our water’s not clean. We all have to take responsibility and ownership to our contribution.”
At one time industries dumped a lot of heavy metals into Baltimore Harbor, she said. But the problems now come from the same sources as the ones causing problems in the Bay and at Kilgore Falls; each one of us doing “only a little bit.”