Precipitation Effects on Microbial Pollution in a River: Lag Structures and Seasonal Effect Modification
The river Göta Älv is a source of freshwater for 0.7 million swedes. The river is subject to contamination from sewer systems discharge and runoff from agricultural lands. Climate models projects an increase in precipitation and heavy rainfall in this region. This study aimed to determine how daily rainfall causes variation in indicators of pathogen loads, to increase knowledge of variations in river water quality and discuss implications for risk management.
Data covering 7 years of daily monitoring of river water turbidity and concentrations of E. coli, Clostridium and coliforms were obtained, and their short-term variations in relation with precipitation were analyzed with time series regression and non-linear distributed lag models. We studied how precipitation effects varied with season and compared different weather stations for predictive ability.
Generally, the lowest raw water quality occurs 2 days after rainfall, with poor raw water quality continuing for several more days. A rainfall event of >15 mm/24-h (local 95 percentile) was associated with a three-fold higher concentration of E. coli and 30% higher turbidity levels (lag 2). Rainfall was associated with exponential increases in concentrations of indicator bacteria while the effect on turbidity attenuated with very heavy rainfall. Clear associations were also observed between consecutive days of wet weather and decreased water quality. The precipitation effect on increased levels of indicator bacteria was significant in all seasons.
Rainfall elevates microbial risks year-round in this river and freshwater source and acts as the main driver of varying water quality. Heavy rainfall appears to be a better predictor of fecal pollution than water turbidity. An increase of wet weather and extreme events with climate change will lower river water quality even more, indicating greater challenges for drinking water producers, and suggesting better control of sources of pollution.