The Story Of E-coli

Remember when your Mom said that if you kept hanging around with troublemakers, you’d get a bad reputation??  Well that’s what happened to little ol’ E-coli.

E-coli is actually a very good bacteria – it lives in the digestive tracts of all warm-blooded animals; from mice to moose, from hummingbirds to herons; and of course, in humans.  There are approximately 225 unique strains of E-coli, and they are essential to the functioning of a healthy digestive system.   E-coli is reliable – it always indicates its presence in a Petri dish.  And it’s cheap: it doesn’t cost much to run a Lab Test for E-coli.  It’s so trustworthy, it’s been given its own nickname: “F.B.I.” which stands for Fecal Bacteria Indicator.

Mom was right, however.  If E-coli is “Snow White” – she’s always accompanied by The Seven Pathogens.  (A pathogen is a microorganism that makes us sick).  The Nasty Seven are called Salmonella, Giardia, Cryptosporidium, Campylobacter, Streptococci, Enterococci, and Clostridium.   (There’s more, actually – but then I lose my storyline…LOL!)  These pathogens can kill; or make you so sick that you WISH you were dead….  E-coli has a dark side, too: it has one strain labeled 0157-H7 and it’s a news-maker when it gets into the commercial food chain and creates an outbreak  of illness.  Normally, 0157 is somewhat uncommon; but studies have shown that when cattle are fed a high-energy, corn-based diet, the pH in their digestive tract changes to favor E-coli 0157.  The bacteria is shed in manure, which then tends to be spread on the fields and crops that are used to feed the cattle; and the cycle continues.

So the revelation is: when we discover E-coli, we’ve also found a lot of other fecal bacteria.  And they’re tough little buggers, unfortunately.  Tests done by the University of Wisconsin show that E-coli 0157 can live from 2 months to a year in manure; 2 days to 10 months in soil; and 2 weeks to 6 months in water, depending on how “friendly” those environments are.  The Nasty Seven are equally as long-lived, sad to say.  Some can form spores and live through the worst of conditions, for over a year.

So what makes a friendly environment for a bacteria to “live long and prosper”?  All my studying (yes, I read a LOT about “cooties”…LOL!) shows that fecal bacteria enjoy wet sand, for example (think the beach) – but if you give them a nice organic sediment, moderate water temperatures, and a lack of sunlight??  They’ll move in and become “endemic”.  That means they like the neighborhood so much that they’ll raise a family there, too.  Sometimes they become anti-social, find a nice textured surface, cover themselves with a coating of slime, and just hang out, undetected, for months.  Until something or somebody disturbs them.  (Go stick your finger inside your garden hose.  Feel the slime???
Betcha don’t drink out of THAT ever again…LOL!).

Sadly, the Cuddy Drain is a fecal bacteria’s idea of a Five-Star Resort.  Nice, shady locations offering pools filled with organic debris (leaves/grass/branches, etc) and a steady supply of nutrients from farm and residential runoff.  It never dries up, nor gets too hot or too cold.  Bottom line: there will ALWAYS be *some* fecal bacteria in the Cuddy Drain.  The trick now becomes: How To Attain Acceptable Levels.

For starters, don’t put fecal bacteria in the Cuddy in the first place.  Duh!  While there’s not much we can do about the deer or raccoon or duck who poops in the Drain – we CAN be careful when spreading manure.  The Michigan DEQ advises farmers to adhere to “BMPs”: Best Management Practices.  Like leaving a nice wide Buffer Strip between a crop and the Drain or its tributaries.  Fencing livestock at least 25′ away.  Not allowing runoff from feedlots to enter the Drain.  There’s a 28′ drop in elevation from the far reaches of the Cuddy Watershed to the bridge at Patterson Rd.  Manure accidentally dropped in the  Cuddy can be in Gun Lake (over 2 miles away) in under an hour.  But there are others sources besides farming; illicit connections from buildings/homes to Drains, using the Drain like an open sewer – or simply a home with a failing septic system (so far, testing has NOT shown this to be the case along the  Cuddy); the careless RV’er or boater who dump their Black Tanks illegally; or even some moron using a Pitching Wedge to loft dog turds into the waterway?  Hey – nothing surprises ME anymore.

I must add – the source that looks the most obvious, the Biosolids Program (where wastewater treatment sludge is injected into the soil) – is NOT to blame for elevated E-coli levels.  This program is monitored by the DEQ out of Grand Rapids; the pathogens are killed before the sludge is injected 10″ underground; and a DEQ representative is on-site making sure there are NO signs of raw sludge or liquid standing about.  Dead E-coli does NOT register on an E-coli test.  If you see a field with liquid waste on the surface – it’s NOT sewage sludge.

Everything you ever wanted to know about Biosolids:

Secondly – let’s not provide a lovely habitat for bacteria to thrive in.  If you see debris in the Drain – pull it out!  Do your part for a healthy Drain 🙂  Don’t become part of what I like to call the “Oops! Cycle”: where one homeowner lets some grass clippings blow into the channel and thinks “oops!”.   Another homeowner blows some leaves into the channel and thinks “oops!”.  Another homeowner applies lawn fertilizer with phosphorus – “oops!”  A farm worker cuts a little too close to the Drain while spreading manure a mile upstream, and thinks “oops!”….. ALL those elements combine to form the perfect environment for bacteria to grow – and chances are the homeowners are the most directly affected by the unsafe levels of E-coli in their recreational water, yet don’t realize their own participation.

“Snow White and the Seven Pathogens” need to find a home elsewhere.


So Why Does The Cuddy Need Friends?

On Feb 4, 2013, I attended a meeting at the Barry County Drain Commissioner’s office, (representing a “voice” of the Gun Lake Protective Association), regarding the replacement of the Patterson Rd bridge over the Cuddy Drain.  This was an Intercounty Drainage Board meeting because Patterson is the line dividing Allegan and Barry Counties.

It was there that I learned that the twin steel corrugated culverts beneath Patterson Rd were cracked and showing their 50 years of age.  That in 1997, after heavy rains washed a tree stump and a mountain of debris down the drain, plugging the culverts, that Anne Mlynarchek’s house flooded (10-1/2 weeks later, this history would repeat itself), Patterson Rd. nearly washed out; and 2 Valley Dr. residents lost their seawalls.  I learned that the DEQ mandated that the new culvert be a 16′ x 4′ wide-open concrete box so as to handle waters from a 100-yr event.  And I learned that a LOT of people living downstream were NOT happy about it, partly due to being assessed for part of the bridge replacement cost; but mostly because of the debris/sand/sediment this new opening (over twice the square footage of the old culverts) was going to dump in their lovely waterfront yards.

And then there’s always the subject of E-coli.  I have been visiting Gun Lake since the late ’60’s; and we bought a lakefront home in 1995.  In December of 2012, we purchased a residence on the Cuddy Channel for my sister and her family.  In MY mind, “Cuddy Drain” was synonymous with “E-coli”…. so I asked the fateful question: “Is anyone planning to do anything about the E-coli coming down this drain?” Well,  wow – THAT opened up a can of worms!!  I was told, basically, that the Cuddy was NOT a source of E-coli.  Period.  End of discussion, because I had clearly walked into a gunfight armed with a butterknife.

But not for long.  A few phone calls and emails produced a detailed list of evidence: test data and newspaper articles going back to 1997, showing a long history of elevated levels of E-coli in the Cuddy Channel.  Back in the late ’90’s, a few folks from the DEQ tried tracking the E-coli upstream, to determine a source point if there was one.  Nothing definite was ever found.  The only constant, was the fact that the Cuddy Drain had at least one or more tests showing unsafe levels of E-coli every year for almost 2 decades.  OK, now I at least was armed with a peashooter!

Back to the Drainage Board meeting: it was there that I met three amazing men: Rich, who’s a veritable historian when it comes to the Cuddy Drain (and living close to Patterson – the unwilling recipient of the worst the drain can offer); Greg, whose eloquence and ability to sort out “the important stuff” helps keep all of us on track!  And Mark – lifelong resident of the area, irrepressible force, and armed with a background in excavating/building and carrying a dream of clean water for everyone.
So I went back to my fellow Gun Lake Protective Ass’n board members and asked if I could take some water samples upstream on the Cuddy; and they said yes.  I took a class in River Water Sampling through the Barry County Conservation District.  Guided by Tom at Summit Labs in Grand Rapids; and Janelle from the  DEQ, it was determined that if I wanted to track the pollution, I needed to test after a decent rain.    Mother Nature dumped a fast .6″ of rain at 11 PM on May 28th, and on the morning of the 29th, I took samples of nice clear water from 5 different points.  Afraid that my samples had been diluted, I still took them immediately to Grand Rapids.  In 24 hours, I had my results – and was dumbfounded!   As a rule, any E-coli test over 300 organisms/100ml (about 1/2 cup) is considered “unsafe”  – my test numbers were in the thousands.  On July 18th, I took another set of samples after a prolonged dry spell and heat wave – again, every test was “unsafe” (but lower than the first set).

I have some theories about where this E-coli is coming from, and will continue to monitor the water quality.  And I think I’ve now got at least something that goes “bang!” to take to that “gunfight” 🙂

So why does the Cuddy needs Friends?  Because it’s causing problems and needs help.  It’s going to need watching over.  It needs some TLC.  It needs someone to speak up for it.  It needs protection.

And that’s what friends do.


The darker shades of blue denote higher water volume

The darker shades of blue denote higher water volume

A Brief History of the Cuddy Drain


In spite of its rather lackluster name, the Cuddy Drain is actually a lovely, spring-fed creek that  meanders across farmlands,  tranquil forests and wetlands.  It ties together Mill Pond, Boot Lake and Round Lake in a watershed that’s 6+ square miles; and is the largest tributary entering Gun Lake at Robbins Bay.  Parts of it have been dug out and straightened, but it never runs dry and has its  share of fish, amphibians and reptiles living in or near it.  Dozens of species of birds and mammals  live nearby; the more unique being the mink and American River Otters who are spotted occasionally by Cuddy residents.

(For clarity’s sake, I’ll refer to the watershed west of Patterson Road as the “Cuddy Drain”; and its residential connection to Gun Lake, west of Patterson, as the “Cuddy Channel”)

A nameless creek can be seen in an Allegan County/Wayland Township map from 1873, draining Boot and Round Lakes by running north; then heading due east towards Robbins Bay in Gun Lake.  As tributaries/drains were added to the creek to drain farmland, they tended to be named for the owner of the main piece of property they crossed.  The Cuddy Drain ran from NW to SE; the Boot Lake Drain ran from SW to NE to join the Cuddy; there they joined the Gardner Drain as it traveled eastward to Gun Lake.  The Tawsley and Holbrook Drains also feed the Gardner on its north edge.  Since the Drain crossed into Yankee Springs Twp. in Barry County, it ultimately became called the Cuddy Intercounty Drain and is overseen by the Drain Commissioners of both Allegan and Barry Counties.

In September 1957, Valley Park Shores was platted on the north side of the Cuddy Channel (Barry County), and the majority of homes on Valley Dr were built in the late 1950s to the mid ’60’s.  A year later, the southern side was platted as Valley Park Shores #1, with Park Dr as its access.  In October 1967, the Island Dr area was platted as Valley Park Shores #2; and the final plat to abut the Cuddy Channel was the Boardwalk Condominiums in 2002.  Today, there’s 100+ homes using the Cuddy Channel’s watery road to Gun Lake!