DNA Analysis Identifies Source of Beach Pollution in Huron County as Animal


Ashfield Colborne Lakefront Association
Box 277, Goderich Ont., N7A 3Z2


Executive Summary

The Ashfield Colborne Lakefront Association has been testing the streams flowing into Lake Huron in our township for the last 3 years. The results have been frightening considering the large numbers of children and adults using the shoreline for recreation.

In September 2003 the Association took a further step in identifying the source of E.coli contamination in the streams and beaches by submitting samples for DNA analysis to a reputable laboratory. The results unanimously show that the source is of animal origin and not human.


Project History

The Ashfield Colborne Lakefront Association (ACLA) is an umbrella organization made up of 22 cottage associations in Ashfield Colborne Wawanosh Township (ACW) in Huron County. ACW lakefront stretches for approximately 35 kilometres along Lake Huron and contains some of the most beautiful beaches in Canada. The sunsets are famous.

Stream testing

In 2001 the members of ACLA, frustrated by 10 years of beach closures due to high e.coli levels, initiated an extensive stream testing programme.

Our association found that there was no consensus as to the source of the pollution that was fouling our beaches. Huron Count Health Unit (HCHU) records show that almost 50% of all beach water tests from 1990 to 2000 exceeded the Provincial Water Quality Standard (PWQS) for recreational use of 100 cfu of E.COLI/100 ml. Individual HCHU samples as high as 50 times the PWQS were not uncommon. HCHU officials informed us that e.coli bacteria survive in beach sediment for as long as 13 months.

Beaches were often closed for over half of the summer.

Farmers blamed cottage septic systems; cottagers blamed intensive livestock operations everyone blamed someone else. No one had facts to prove their accusations. ACLA decided that an ongoing stream testing programme was necessary sampling all significant watercourses that entered the lake in our township. Facts were needed, not opinions.

The programme has been in action for three years in cooperation with the Maitland Valley Conservation Authority (MVCA). MVCA selected the test sites, chose the laboratories, trained the volunteers, and published the results. ACLA raised the funds assisted by a yearly contribution from Ashfield-Colborne-Wawanosh Township (ACW), provided volunteers for sample collection, and presented to results to a variety of government organizations. Testing is done on a bi-weekly basis from early spring to late fall 15-18 test dates for a total of 175-200 individual tests per year.

In 2001, we tested 12 streams as they passed under Highway 21 on their way to the lake. In 2002 we sampled 5-6 upstream locations on the three streams that created the greatest pollution load on the lake in 2001. In 2003 we returned to testing 12 streams and 1 river mouth.

The results were frightening

In 2001, e.coli levels as high as 17,000 cfu of E.Coli/100ml were found in streams. On October 10th, following significant rainfall, the geometric mean for the 12 streams was 3,170 32 times the PWQS. In 2001, ACW beaches were closed for a total of 140 days with each beach being closed an average of 28 days.

2002 was no better. We recorded e.coli levels as high as 26,000 and a worst-day geometric mean of 5,408 54 times the PWQS. In 2002, ACW beaches were closed for a total of 164 days.

2003 started well. An extremely dry summer produced much lower numbers, lulling us into thinking that perhaps we were beginning to make an improvement. This notion was exploded on October 15th when, following significant rain, we recorded samples of 42,000 and 17,000 and a worst-day geometric average for the 12 sites of 4,198 42 times the PWQS. In 2003, HCHU decided to permanently post the three main beaches in ACW as heavily polluted and unsafe for swimming at any time. A photo of the sign posted at Port Albert is shown on the first page of this letter.

Not only are the pollution levels high; the impact on Lake Huron is staggering. One stream, Nine Mile River, is relatively small by comparison to significant rivers approximately 3 meters wide at the mouth. In 2001 Nine Mile River poured a volume of water into Lake Huron equivalent to a lake of 55 square kilometres 5 metres deep. On average this water was loaded with e.coli at 5 times the PWQS creating a massive body of heavily polluted water with a minimum e.coli life of 13 months.

Progress to date all results confirm that massive volumes of e.coli loaded water enter Lake Huron from the 12 streams. The fact that the e.coli levels spike drastically after rainfall and reduce significantly during dry weather would indicate that the pollution comes from farm runoff. Only one of the streams runs through a community eliminating the claim that the pollution is caused by municipal sewage releases.

DNA testing

On September 17, a team made up of 2 ACLA volunteers and a MVCA staff member took 100 ml. water samples at Amberley Beach, Ashfield Township Park Beach, and Port Albert Beach. Additional samples were taken upstream of Ashfield Beach on Eighteen Mile River at Highway 21 and upstream of Port Albert Beach on Nine Mile River at Highway 21.

The five samples were flown overnight to Source Molecular labs in Gainesville Florida for DNA analysis.

Source Molecular is a well respected lab with a significant number of Canadian clients. They offer a series of tests, including the ability to identify whether e.coli in water comes from human or animal origin.

Source Molecular separated each 100 ml. sample into five parts and performed analysis on all 25 samples.

The attached copy of the Source Molecular report confirms that all 25 samples were of animal origin.

While it is possible that the e.coli originates from birds or wild animals, the possibility is extremely remote. Huron County has the third-highest density of livestock in Ontario with an average of 224 farm animals per square kilometre with a total population of 763,000 animals. Huron County has almost 20% more farm animals than any other county in Ontario.

The Ontario Ministry of the Environment staff have confirmed that Huron has the second-lowest percentage of forest cover in Ontario providing little refuge for large numbers of wild animals.

In 2004, ACLA intends to submit further samples for more detailed analysis as a means of identifying whether the e.coli originates from cattle or pigs.

Even though long-term data, stream testing, and the DNA results confirm that the majority of pollution enters the lake by way of streams, there is still a possibility that malfunctioning septic systems (both lakefront and inland) may be contributing to the problem.

In a 2001 survey, 73% of ACLA members supported the implementation of a mandatory septic system pump-out and inspection programme for the township and county. Representations have been made to the ACW council and the Huron County Health Board with this recommendation.

Attached to this report is a list of the data sources we have used in our research.

Call for action

We believe that the data is overwhelming and conclusive.

We are distributing this report to responsible Ministries, Ontario cabinet ministers, parliamentary assistants, local MPPs, opposition critics, responsible federal Ministers, local federal MPs, environmental groups, and a number of newspaper and media personnel.

We will be requesting meetings with the Cabinet Ministers holding the Environment, Agriculture and Food, Tourism, Natural Resources, Health and Municipal Affairs portfolios as a means of initiating an action plan with concrete target dates for the elimination of this pollution and health risk.

We appreciate your time and interest in this increasing threat to our health, environment, and community. We ask that you use your authority, influence and knowledge to help us eliminate farm runoff.

Doing nothing is not an option!!!!

If you have questions, comments, or suggestions, please contact:

Mike McElhone
Environmental Team Leader
Ashfield-Colborne Lakefront Association

Information Sources

  1. Beach water quality records: Huron County Health Unit beach testing records.
  2. Stream testing records: Maitland Valley Conservation reports available on the ACLA website
  3. Source Molecular Services
  4. Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food Huron County Animal population
  5. Map of stream test locations
  6. ACLA submission to Ashfield-Colborne-Wawanosh council recommending mandatory septic system pump-out and inspection program

Issued by Mike McElhone and Heinz Puhlmann.