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Bacteria levels still high at Bull Creek Park one year later

Friday, August 15, 2008 by Mark Richardson

City officials are continuing to monitor bacteria levels in the waters of Bull Creek District Park, where elevated levels of E. coli bacteria were discovered one year ago. Watershed Protection and Development officials, who determined the source was fecal matter left by off-leash dogs, says those levels remain elevated.


At that time a year ago, city officials developed an educational program to inform dog owners who took their pets to Bull Creek Park about the importance of collecting their dogs’ feces. The campaign included a clean-up event, signage in the park and additional “Scoop the Poop” boxes, along with increased Park Police and staff presence.


Despite the efforts, water quality monitoring shows that the bacteria level in the Park remains just as high as it was a year ago.


“The technical committee was poised to propose revoking the park’s ‘off-leash’ status for a period of six months,” WPRD Director Victoria Li in a recent memo to the City Council. “The plan was to continue monitoring to see if the change in use would mitigate the bacteria levels in the park.”


However, a citizen volunteer group called the Bull Creek Dog Off-leash Group, or BCDOG, has recently become active, and Li wrote they appeared to be making progress in reducing the uncollected levels of uncollected dog feces in the park.


“In the interest of encouraging the citizen effort as a potential long-tem mitigation strategy and maintaining maximum use of the park, staff now recommends an additional six-month evaluation period,” Li wrote.


She said staff will continue bacteria sampling in the park for six months, then make another evaluation of whether restrictions should be imposed on “off leash” animals in the park.


WPRD began an investigation of the District Park area after several members of a children’s group reported gastrointestinal illnesses after swimming in the Park’s pond in August 2007. Officials with the Austin-Travis County Health and Human Services Department, in their initial investigation, suspected a sewage spill that occurred about three miles above the district park.


However, after taking water samples at several locations along Bull Creek, the District Park was the only area with consistently high E. coli levels. Those studies showed the level of E. coli in the park was almost four times that of other parks of the Bull Creek watershed, and three times the TCEQ Contact Recreation Standard. The outbreak seemed to be concentrated on weekends, when the E. coli concentration was almost eight times the level on weekdays.


“Bacteria levels in the park remained elevated above state contact recreation standards following the spill,” Li wrote in her update. “An intensive investigation by the Austin Water Utility was conducted, which included visual surveys, smoke testing, dye testing and caffeine testing to look for potential chronic wastewater impacts. The results of those investigations concluded that wastewater was not the probable source of the continuing bacteria problem in the creek.”


What staff did find was large amounts of uncollected dog feces on the ground and an extremely high density of dogs in the area of the district park, which is an off-leash area for dogs. Staff determined that the dogs were tracking the material into the water, where it was causing the high bacteria levels.

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