Fecal contamination of waterbodies due to poorly managed human and animal waste is a pervasive problem that can be particularly costly to address, especially if mitigation strategies are ineffective at sufficiently reducing the level of contamination. Identifying the most worrisome sources of contamination is particularly difficult in periurban streams with multiple land uses and requires the distinction of municipal, agricultural, domestic pet, and natural (i.e., wildlife) wastes. Microbial source-tracking (MST) methods that target host-specific members of the bacterial order Bacteroidales
and others have been used worldwide to identify the origins of fecal contamination. We conducted a dry-weather study of Onondaga Creek, NY, where reducing fecal contamination has been approached mainly by mitigating combined sewer overflow events (CSOs). Over three sampling dates, we measured in-stream concentrations of fecal indicator bacteria; MST markers targeting human, ruminant, and canine sources; and various physical–chemical parameters to identify contaminants not attributable to CSOs or stormwater runoff. We observed that despite significant ruminant inputs upstream, these contaminants eventually decayed and/or were diluted out and that high levels of urban bacterial contamination are most likely due to failing infrastructure and/or illicit discharges independent of rain events. Similar dynamics may control other streams that transition from agricultural to urban areas with failing infrastructure.
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