Objective.—The presence of coliform bacteria indicates a watershed risk for harboring microbes capable of causing human disease. We hypothesized that water from watersheds that have different human- or animal-use patterns would have differing risks for the presence of coliform bacteria.
Methods.—Water was collected in wilderness areas of the Sierra Nevada range in California. A total of 60 sites from lakes or streams were selected to statistically differentiate the risk categories: 1) high use by backpackers, 2) high use by pack animals, 3) cattle- and sheep-grazing tracts, and 4) natural areas rarely visited by humans or domestic animals. Water was collected in sterile test tubes and Millipore coliform samplers during the summer of 2004. Water was analyzed at the university microbiology lab, where bacteria were harvested and then subjected to analysis by standardized techniques. Confirmation was performed with a Phoenix 100 bacteria analyzer. Statistical analysis to compare site categories was performed with Fisher exact test.
Results.—Only 1 of 15 backpacker sites yielded coliforms. In contrast, 12 of 15 sites with heavy pack-animal traffic yielded coliforms. All 15 sites below the cattle-grazing areas grew coliforms. Differences between backpacker and cattle or pack-animal areas were significant (P ≤ .05). Only 1 of the 15 wild sites rarely visited by humans grew coliforms. All coliforms were identified as Escherichia coli. All samples grew normal aquatic bacteria of the genera Pseudomonas, Ralstonia, and Serratia and nonpathogenic strains of Yersinia. No correlation could be made with temperature or elevation. Sites below cattle-grazing tracts and pack-animal usage areas tended to have more total bacteria.
Conclusions.—Alpine wilderness water below cattle-grazing tracts or areas used by pack animals are at risk for containing coliform organisms. Areas exclusively used by backpackers were nearly free of coliforms.