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Escherichia coli levels in recreational waters are often used to predict when fecal-associated pathogen levels are a human health risk. The reach of the Chattahoochee River that flows through the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area (CRNRA), located in the Atlanta-metropolitan area, is a popular recreation area that frequently exceeds the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency beach action value (BAV) for E. coli. A BacteriALERT program has been implemented to provide real-time E. coli estimates in the reach and notify the public of potentially harmful levels of fecal-associated pathogens as indicated by surrogate models based on real-time turbidity measurements from continuous water quality monitoring stations. However, E. coli does not provide information about the sources of fecal contamination and its accuracy as a human health indicator is questionable when sources of contamination are non-human. The objectives of our study were to investigate, within the Park and surrounding watersheds, seasonal and precipitation-related patterns in microbial source tracking marker concentrations of possible sources (human, dog, and ruminant), assess correlations between source contamination levels and culturable E. coli levels, determine which sources best explained model-based E. coli estimates above the BAV and detection of esp2 (a marker for the esp gene associated with pathogenic strains of Enterococcus faecium and Enterococcus faecalis), and investigate associations between source contamination levels and land use features. Three BacteriALERT sites on the Chattahoochee River were sampled six times per season in the winter and summer from December 2015 through September 2017, and 11 additional stream sites (synoptic sites) from the CRNRA watershed were sampled once per season. Samples were screened with microbial source tracking (MST) quantitative PCR (qPCR) markers for humans (HF183 Taqman), dogs (DogBact), and ruminants (Rum2Bac), the esp2 qPCR marker, and culturable E. coli. At the BacteriALERT sites, HF183 Taqman concentrations were higher under wet conditions DogBact concentrations were greater in the winter and under wet conditions, and Rum2Bac concentrations were comparatively low throughout the study with no difference across seasons or precipitation conditions. Concentrations of HF183 Taqman, DogBact, and Rum2Bac were positively correlated with culturable E. coli concentrations; however, DogBact had the largest R2 value among the three markers, and the forward stepwise regression indicated it was the best predictor of culturable E. coli concentrations at the BacteriALERT sites. Recursive partitioning indicated that BAV exceedances of model-based E. coli estimates were best explained by DogBact concentrations ≥3 gene copies per mL (CN/mL). Detections of esp2 at BacteriALERT sites were best explained by DogBact concentrations ≥11 CN/mL, while detections of esp2 at synoptic sites were best explained by HF183 Taqman ≥29 CN/mL. At the synoptic sites, HF183 Taqman levels were associated with wastewater treatment plant density. However, this relationship was driven primarily by a single site, suggesting possible conveyance issues in that catchment. esp2 detections at synoptic sites were positively associated with development within a 2-km radius and negatively associated with development within the catchment, suggesting multiple sources of esp2 in the watershed. DogBact and Rum2Bac were not associated with the land use features included in our analyses. Implications for Park management include: 1) fecal contamination levels were highest during wet conditions and in the off season when fewer visitors are expected to be participating in water-based recreation, 2) dogs are likely contributors to fecal contamination in the CRNRA and may be sources of pathogenic bacteria indicating further investigation of the origins of this contamination may be warranted as would be research to understand the human health risks from exposure to dog fecal contamination, and 3) high levels of the human marker at one site in the CRNRA watershed suggests more extensive monitoring in that catchment may locate the origin of human fecal contamination detected during this study.
McKee, B. A., Molina, M., Cyterski, M., & Couch, A. (2020). Microbial source tracking (MST) in Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area: Seasonal and precipitation trends in MST marker concentrations, and associations with E. coli levels, pathogenic marker presence, and land use. Water Research, 171. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.watres.2019.115435