How pathogens can affect Opelika’s water supply

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This 1983 micrograph of a direct fecal smear is stained to detect Cryptosporidium sp., an intracellular protozoan parasite. Crypto is shown in red. Photo courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

By Case O’Dell
For the Opelika
Observer

Perhaps one of the most dangerous and disgusting pollutants that can be found in our local waters is fecal bacteria. A small amount of these pathogens are naturally introduced into streams and lakes by wildlife, usually in insignificant quantities that pose no threat. However, with cities continually growing, the presence of this pollutant has the potential to increase dramatically.
When the amount of E. coli and other harmful fecal coliforms is high enough, serious health risks can develop. If water from contaminated streams is ingested, or otherwise enters the body, severe abdominal cramps can set in, often accompanied with bloody diarrhea. For children this can be especially fatal, as toxins secreted by E. coli can lead to kidney failure.
With implications this serious it is important to be conscious of water quality, knowing how to prevent pollution from pathogens and taking responsibility where it makes sense.
Minimizing the presence of pathogens in our waters starts with developing an awareness of where they originate and how they come to contaminate our waters. Fecal bacteria can contaminate Opelika’s waters in a variety of ways, some that might surprise you. Failures in sanitary sewer infrastructure and poor pet waste disposal practices are two of the main ways that pathogens are introduced into our lakes and streams.
When your pets relieve themselves, it is important to properly dispose of their waste.
Picking up your furry friend’s excrement is no one’s favorite task, but it goes a long way in helping keep our waters clean and safe. When out in the yard, on a walk, or playing in one of Opelika’s dog parks, ensure that pet waste is removed with a bag and properly disposed of in a designated bin. Pet waste that isn’t properly disposed of gets swept away during rain events.
This allows for the introduction of harmful bacteria into stormwater runoff. This contaminated stormwater then makes its way directly to our local water resources.
Another main contributor of fecal bacteria in our waters are failed sanitary sewer systems. Opelika is an old town full of old infrastructure, and when this is the case some problems are sure to be encountered. Growing cities, like Opelika, require maintenance, improvement and replacement of infrastructure. But every day citizens have a role to play when it comes to maintaining sanitary sewer infrastructure as well. Reporting overflowing manholes or other sewage leaks is crucial in preserving the quality of our water resources.
Additionally, many leaks develop because of improperly disposed of cooking oil. FOGs (fats, oils and grease) should never be poured down a drain in the house, as this results in clogs that develop in sewer lines.
This issue is one that seems “out of sight, out of mind” for many of us, but when care is not taken to minimize pathogen pollutants, serious issues arise.
Start by developing a consciousness of pathogens, putting into practice proper pet waste and cooking oil disposal, and when you see an issue don’t be afraid to report it. Good quality of life in our community starts with good quality water resources.
O’Dell is an engineering technician with the City of Opelika. He is a Mississippi State graduate and has been working with the city since 2017.

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