County Monitoring Water Quality in Back River

In response to recent public health concerns about water quality in sections of Back River, County Executive Johnny Olszewski directed Baltimore County’s environmental health specialists and natural resource specialists to coordinate enhanced bacterial monitoring of Back River in the areas adjacent to and downstream from Baltimore City’s Back River Wastewater Treatment plant.

In addition to routine seasonal sampling conducted by the Department of Health’s Environmental Health Services (EHS), biologists from the Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability’s (EPS) Watershed Management and Monitoring section are monitoring additional locations in upper Back River. Results will be posted each week as soon as they are available, through the summer season, on the Department of Health’s Water Sampling Results webpage.  EPS results are posted at the top of the page, and EHS results are at the bottom of the page, under the “Tidal Recreation Waters” section.

“The health and safety of our residents is of paramount concern for me, so while we do not have any operational control of the wastewater plant, we can and will continue to regularly test Back River’s water quality,” said Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski. “Making this information easily accessible to the public allows community members to make informed decisions about their interactions with the waterway as we continue to push for a solution to the underlying issues.”

Sampling results on April 25 and May 2 have indicated acceptable levels of both Enterococci and E. Coli at all locations, including EHS’ recreational water sample locations, and EPS’ additional monitoring sites.

More information on the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant, including the results of Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) sampling for bacteria in Back River in the immediate vicinity of the plant, is available on MDE’s website.

Testing Standards
Using standardized protocols and procedures, County monitoring professionals test for the bacteriological indicator organisms Enterococci and Escherichia coli (E. coli). These organisms are found in the intestines of all warm-blooded animals and, when found in higher concentrations in conjunction with a known or suspected source of sewage contamination, they indicate the probable presence of other more pathogenic organisms. The USEPA/MDE bacteriological standard for primary contact recreation is 104 MPN, Enterococci and 235 MPN, E. coli.

The association of sewage contamination with elevated indicator organism concentrations is particularly important because sewage carries a significant array of human pathogens, greatly increasing the possibility of contracting a water borne illness. Elevated, naturally occurring bacteria concentrations due to waterfowl, marsh decomposition, or normal ground surface runoff are, in general, not considered to have as great a public health significance.

Safe Water Recreation
Contact with waterways should be avoided for at least 48 hours after a moderate rain event, since high stream flows correlate with elevated bacteria levels, creating potentially unsafe conditions.  Excessive storm water runoff after heavy rains can carry pet waste, agricultural waste or fecal contaminants from sewage overflows as well as various chemicals including those associated with commercial and residential lawn care. Murky or debris-strewn water, which often occurs after storms or heavy rains, is a general indication of unsafe recreational conditions.

Water conditions change constantly, and any single sample or group of samples represents a “snapshot in time” and should not be used without other supporting information to characterize the water quality of a particular river, lake or bay.

Questions or Concerns
Those with questions or concerns should contact Environmental Health Services at the Department of Health: ehs@baltimorecountymd.gov or 410-887-3663 and Watershed Management and Monitoring at the Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability at watersheds@baltimorecountymd.gov or 410-887-5683.