By John Schaffner
The Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper organization and volunteers from the Collier Hills neighborhood have started weekly tests to determine the level of E. coli bacteria in the waters of Tanyard Creek as it flows through Tanyard Creek Park.
On Feb. 4, Riverkeeper watershed protection specialist Jason Ulseth taught volunteers from the south Buckhead neighborhood how to the take weekly samples. On that day, the creek’s E. coli reading was almost three times the amount accepted as a safe level by the Environmental Protection Agency.
A reading taken Jan. 21, when the Riverkeeper discussed the sampling program with Collier Hills representatives, was much worse. In that test, E. coli registered almost 15 times the EPA standard for recreational water quality.
The Tanyard Creek testing program is part of a broad plan by the Riverkeeper to monitor the quality of creeks throughout the metro area in conjunction with local neighborhood associations, watershed groups and others, Ulseth said.
He said the Riverkeeper organization recently obtained laboratory equipment at its headquarters that enables it to test water samples in-house relatively cheaply, rather than having to pay more for independent lab tests.
The Riverkeeper, Ulseth said, also is working on monitoring programs for Proctor Creek in west Atlanta, Clear Creek in south Atlanta and Nancy Creek and Peachtree Creek, both of which flow through areas of Buckhead. Tanyard Creek actually flows into Peachtree Creek north of the Collier Hills neighborhood at Bobby Jones Golf Course. Nancy Creek flows through north Buckhead and Chastain Park.
Most of the creeks on the primary list —including Tanyard Creek — are connected to Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) stations in the city, which often dump sewage into the creeks during heavy rain or if they malfunction.
The creek water sampling is modeled after a program the riverkeeper has conducted daily for about 10 years on the Chattahoochee River, according to Ulseth.
Under the program, Collier Hills neighborhood volunteers will sample the water of Tanyard Creek every Thursday at about 1 p.m. from a bridge near the steps that lead into the park from Walthall Drive.
A volunteer will deliver the sample to the Riverkeeper’s headquarters in Puritan Mill, about three miles from Collier Hills on Joseph Lowery Boulevard in northwest Atlanta. Test results should be available the next day.
Amanda Whitaker, who lives on Walthall Drive across from Tanyard Creek Park, has volunteered to be the primary sample taker. “I walk my dog through the park everyday anyhow,” she said. “I was here and I think it is an important issue and I decided to help out.”
When Whitaker is not available, Molly Willis, who also lives near the park in Collier Hills, will be the backup. Barbara Kennedy, who chairs the neighborhood’s safety committee, helped coordinate the program with UCR.
During a rain-drenched training course Feb. 4, Ulseth gave volunteers a small cooler, which included the materials needed to take the samples. The cooler will be used to transport the sample, chilled by ice cubes, to the Riverkeeper’s laboratory.
The samples are collected and transported in bags that are called “whirl bags” because the person who takes a sample whirls the bag to seal it for transportation. To collect a sample, the bag is placed in a pipe-like apparatus that can be lowered from the bridge on a cord to the water.
“You want to maintain a sterile technique,” he told the volunteers. “You don’t want to make sure that nothing but sample water gets into (the bag). You don’t want to touch it and you don’t want any other surface to touch it.”
Each sample is labeled as to where and when it was collected. Ulseth said that over the next several months samples should provide documentation on patterns of creek contamination, including how rain and low creek levels affect E. coli levels.
Water samples taken recently from Tanyard Creek have shown high levels of E. coli bacteria. The federal Environmental Protection Agency says water used for recreation should not contain more than 235 mpn/100 milliliters, or 235 “most probable number” of bacteria per 100 milliliters of water sampled. Samples taken by Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper water protection specialist Jason Ulseth registered the following counts:
Date mpn/100 milliters
Jan. 21 3,455
Feb. 4 646
Source: Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper