Examining coastal dynamics and recreational water quality by quantifying multiple sewage specific markers in a North Carolina estuary

Journal Article Resource
August 2020


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Fecal contamination is observed downstream of municipal separate storm sewer systems in coastal North Carolina. While it is well accepted that wet weather contributes to this phenomenon, less is understood about the contribution of the complex hydrology in this low-lying coastal plain. A quantitative microbial assessment was conducted in Beaufort, North Carolina to identify trends and potential sources of fecal contamination in stormwater receiving waters. Fecal indicator concentrations were significantly higher in receiving water downstream of a tidally submerged outfall compared to an outfall that was permanently submerged (p < 0.001), though tidal height was not predictive of human-specific microbial source tracking (MST) marker concentrations at the tidally submerged site. Short-term rainfall (i.e. <12 h) was predictive of E. coliEnterococcus spp., and human-specific MST marker concentrations (Fecal Bacteroides, BacHum, and HF183) in receiving waters. The strong correlation between 12-hr antecedent rainfall and Enterococcus spp. (r = 0.57, p < 0.001, n = 92) suggests a predictive model could be developed based on rainfall to communicate risk for bathers. Additional molecular marker data indicates that the delivery of fecal sources is complex and highly variable, likely due to the influence of tidal influx (saltwater intrusion from the estuary) into the low-lying stormwater pipes. In particular, elevated MST marker concentrations (up to 2.56 × 104 gene copies HF183/mL) were observed in standing water near surcharging street storm drain. These data are being used to establish a baseline for stormwater dynamics prior to dramatic rainfall in 2018 and to characterize the interaction between complex stormwater dynamics and water quality impairment in coastal NC.

About this article

This 2020 article, which appeared in Science of The Total Environment, describes a study assessing the extent and causes of potential fecal contamination in the frequently-visited Rachel Carson Estuarine Research Reserve. The research team quantified the dynamics and magnitude of fecal contamination in stormwater discharge to highly-used waters of a coastal town in North Carolina as part of a 2016 - 2020 collaborative research project.


Hart, J.D., A.D. Blackwood, A.D., and R.T. Noble. 2020 (in press). Examining coastal dynamics and recreational water quality by quantifying multiple sewage specific markers in a North Carolina estuary. Science of The Total Environment 141124. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.141124

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