This summer, Canadian eco-adventure duo The Water Brothers interviewed Waterkeeper's Mark Mattson at the Keating Channel for an upcoming episode for their award-winning documentary series.
On camera, Mark discussed the lake's water quality and demonstrated how to correctly collect a water sample for lab analysis. Off camera, my job was to document that each step of the sampling process was completed properly.
This was my first time collecting water samples. Since I work for Waterkeeper, I knew there was a lot more to do than just fill a bottle with water.
The water from the Keating Channel – one of Toronto’s most contaminated areas – guaranteed positive results for bacteria. Located at the mouth of the Don River, the Keating Channel collects everything that washes down the Don before flowing into Lake Ontario. It was a rainy day and with 872 storm drains and 30 combined sewer outfalls washing down the Don River, we expected bacteria levels to be higher than usual.
But we didn't expect them to be this high.
So be thorough. Take detailed notes of everything you did, step by step. No need to be eloquent. But indicate exactly what you did and what you observed. Note the time you sampled the water, the temperature, and the temperature of the water. Was there any wildlife? Did you smell anything? Hear anything? Is there anything suspicious like dead fish on the shore?
If there are any surprises in the lab results, your notes can also indicate other influences. Was it a dusty environment? Were your samples kept cool (to preserve any existing bacteria) from the moment you took the sample?
Whether you’re testing water quality from a waterbody or water from your tap – your water sample could be used as evidence. The more details you provide, the more credible your samples become.
Off to the lab
The next step was shipping the samples to Maxxam Lab. And timing is crucial. Bacteria samples have to get to the lab on the same day they were collected – as quickly as possible.
From the water source, to you, to the express courier, to the lab. No stopping in between.
Ownership must also be recorded. The lab needs to know who possessed the samples from the moment they were collected to the moment they arrived at the lab. This is done with the Chain of Custody form.
And note: you should not tell the lab where the water samples were sourced. The less they know about the samples, the more impartial their analysis will be. In our Chain of Custody form below, you can see Keating Channel is coded as “KC.”
Your field notes are yours to keep. But make sure you don’t misplace them, just in case you need them down the road.
We get asked often how much it costs to collect bacteria samples. In this case:
Bottles: Free from the lab
Courier: $38.00 + 13% tax = $42.94
Total Cost: $367.94
You can see on the Chain of Custody form, Waterkeeper tested for total coliform, fecal coliform, and E.coli (Escherichia coli). To break them down:
- Total coliform bacteria can come from many things – humans, animals, soil, and submerged wood.
- Fecal coliform is a type of total coliform and essentially, poop – but it can be associated with textile waste, so it’s not the best indicator of health risk.
- E.coli is a type of fecal coliform. Because E.coli is specific to fecal matter from humans and warm-blooded mammals, “E.coli is the best indicator of health risk from water contact in recreational waters.”
The standard for beach water quality in Ontario is 100 E.coli per 100 mL of water. If an Ontario beach has more than 100 E.coli in 100 mL, the province considers the water a high risk to human health and the natural environment. If five samples all average over 100, then advisories should be posted until bacteria levels drop. When we saw the lab results, we were shocked.
The first sample had 34,000 counts of E.coli. That’s 340 times the provincial standard – some of the most contaminated samples Waterkeeper has ever collected from the Keating Channel.
The rain washed more bacteria downstream. All samples were taken from the exact same location. And you can see with every proceeding sample, bacteria increased. After only 39 minutes, the fifth sample indicates the E.coli count multiplied to 48,000.
The geometric mean of all five samples – the official measurement – is 41,000.
So what should you take from this?
It’s easy to arrive at a lot of conclusions from reading this. Most obviously: the Keating Channel was polluted with bacteria in the midst of a heavy rainstorm this August.
Apart from that, there are three things you should note:
- “Water quality changes like the weather.” -- Vice-President Krystyn Tully
Bacteria are living organisms. They live and die. During the time we collected our samples, the E.coli count increased by 15,000. If we waited even longer, because the rain washed more waste and debris downstream, bacteria levels would increase even higher. But if we sampled before it rained or came back 48-72 hours after the wet weather, bacteria levels would decrease to what is considered normal for the area.
- Water sampling is a powerful tool. If you like to swim, paddle, surf, or fish from an unmarked shoreline, chances are the water quality isn’t monitored at that location. If you suspect something – if you see a dead fish or if the water smells funny – your suspicions could be right. Testing the water quality can help prevent illness for you and your community.
- Anyone can do it. Anyone can collect water samples. Anyone can take good notes. No expertise or certification is required.
We can all agree, no one should ever get sick from enjoying a swim, drinking from a tap, or eating a fish. Water sampling is just one example of what you can do to help protect your community. Yes, it’s a lot of work. But your work can go a long way in helping prevent illness.
There are 9 million people relying on Lake Ontario. Everyone has a part to play to ensure the lake has a swimmable, drinking, fishable future.