One of the most popular swimming holes in Harford County, Maryland, is Kilgore Falls.
On hot, humid summer days, you’ll find
bathers of all ages cooling off in its water. It’s
a beautiful setting, with a large waterfall, and
tall, overhanging trees offering respite from
the sun. The scene was featured in the
Disney movie, Tuck Everlasting.
But after a rainstorm, the natural pool at
Kilgore Falls and many other informal fresh
water swimming areas in the Chesapeake Bay
region are not safe, according to water tests
conducted this summer in Maryland through
a partnership between CBF and local colleges.
A day after a storm in mid-July, the water at
Kilgore Falls was foul, with levels of harmful
bacteria 226 times above safety levels set by the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The
readings indicated extremely high levels of
fecal material in water where people swim.
High readings were not isolated to one swimming hole. Swan Creek, which runs through
residential neighborhoods in Harford County,
had bacteria levels more than 500 times the
EPA safe level after the same July 14 rain
storm. A popular kayak launch area on Deer
Creek in the same county had readings more
than 400 times above standards. In Frederick
County, several creeks also had extremely elevated bacteria levels, including Carroll Creek
that runs directly through the downtown
business district and a popular park.
The testing showed that the water quality in
the creeks improved within a few days of a
storm. But bathers and others often were seen
recreating in the water sooner than was safe.
Even 48 hours after a heavy downpour in early
June, the bacteria count in the Kilgore water
was nearly 50 times higher than safe levels.
Water samples were taken and tested by staff
at Hood College in Frederick County,
Howard Community College, and Harford
Results suggest polluted runoff from farms
and suburban and city landscapes is fouling
the fresh water streams and rivers in these
three counties. Follow-up tests are being considered in some areas to determine the source
of the bacteria. Livestock manure, pet waste,
and human waste from leaking septic systems
are often the culprits in such polluted creeks.
Generally, the hazards of polluted runoff
are well known to scientists and health
agencies. The Maryland Department of the
Environment, for instance, cautions the public
not to come into contact with any natural water
for a full 48 hours after a significant rainstorm.
But in some rural and suburban areas of the
state, the public often doesn’t realize the
beautiful fresh water streams and rivers can
be just as polluted by runoff as an urban river
or the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay.
On the bright side, if farmers, governments,
and citizens in these areas commit to clean up
their streams, they will reap the benefits,
whether in healthier animals, or cleaner swimming holes. Downstream of those cleaner
streams, the Chesapeake also will improve.
Harford Community College professor Tami Imbierowicz and her daughter
take water samples after a storm.
Tom Zolper coordinates
communication in Maryland
for CBF. He is a former
newspaper reporter and
What’s in that Water?
By Tom Zolper