Fecal Matters: Fate and transport of traditional fecal indicator bacteria and source-tracking targets in septic drainfields

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Virginia Tech


Between 1970 and 2010 almost one-third of drinking water related waterborne disease outbreaks reported to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were associated with systems dependent on untreated groundwater (i.e., most commonly, household wells). This is unsurprising, given that numerous past efforts to monitor household well water quality have indicated a high prevalence of fecal coliforms and/or E. coli at the point of use. Non-point sources of pollution, including septic tank leakages and poorly constructed drain fields, have been identified as the leading risk factors associated with outbreaks in households dependent on groundwater. Ideally, the integration of emerging source tracking (ST) analyses in well monitoring programs could be used to identify whether the presence of fecal indicator bacteria (FIB) is associated with human or non-human sources in order to inform remediation strategies. However, the application of ST to groundwater has been limited, and the interpretation of data is consequently difficult.

This research compares the fate and transport of FIB (E. coli and enterococci) with a chemical (optical brighteners, OB) and a molecular (Bacteroides HF183) ST target in order to evaluate their potential use as indicators of water quality issues in private drinking water systems. Eighteen PVC soil columns were constructed in an outdoor soil column facility to represent small-scale septic drainfield models; they received synchronized doses of primary-treated wastewater twice daily and were monitored bi-weekly over a 7-month period. Columns were subject to variable influent loading rates of wastewater effluent, and differing degrees of soil compromisation (i.e. synthetic solution channels). Results show that while column effluent volume and constituent levels were related to dosage, they were not always related to soil compromisation (ANOVA, p < 0.05). E. coli and enterococci concentrations were associated with effluent volume and OB levels (Spearman's rank, p < 0.05). The presence of Bacteroides HF183 was not strongly associated with the other measured ST target levels (Point-biserial correlation, p < 0.05). Findings from this study suggest surface water ST methodologies may have a role in groundwater quality monitoring efforts. Quantifying the relative recovery of ST targets and FIB from controlled groundwater simulations will assist in the development of strategies to identify non-point sources of human wastewater pollution efficiently and effectively to inform remediation.



groundwater, fecal indicator bacteria, source tracking, septic systems, MST, soil column