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About cows and coliform

    Cows are a important source of biological contamination of fresh water by enteric (intestinal) pathogens, such as anthrax, salmonella, tetanus, giardia and E. coli O157:H7, present in the cow's manure. It is expensive and time consuming to test for each of the approximately 100 waterborne enteric pathogens, so an indicator specie, fecal coliform, is tested instead. Cows produce about 1011 (100 billion) colony forming units of fecal coliform per cow per day, an order of magnitude greater than sheep and hogs.

    The Granger Drain is a system of above-ground drainage ditches and subsurface tile drains and pipes, covering about 18000 acres, that eventually discharges into the Yakima River in east-central Washington State. This semi-arid region receives about 8 inches of rainfall per year, and is supplemented with about 36 inches of irrigation water per year, mostly delivered by the traditional method of water running across the ground in furrows (rills). In addition to orchards and various crops, this area also hosts a number of dairies and animal feed operations (feedlots). The Yakima Valley is one of the most productive agricultural areas on Planet Earth.

    Waterborne pathogens are quickly washed into the Granger Drain system, and hence into the Yakima River, during the irrigation season. In order to quantify the relationship between cows and contaminated runoff, the South Yakima Conservation District measured fecal coliform concentrations in water from drains at the outlets of 8 different sub-basins within the Granger Drain system from 1990 to 1992. Repeated measurements of fecal coliform are given as mean values in the table. The Washington State Department of Ecology reviewed the data and compared the FC counts with a number of other variables. The acreage covered by dairies and feedlots was the only parameter, out of several studied, which correlated well with the fecal coliform data.

    As is apparent from the graph and the data that there is a strong positive correlation between the acreage of cows and the amount of FC in the water. DOE presented a linear regression between acreage and FC in their report, however an exponential model fits the data with a higher correlation coefficient. The data and model raise some interesting questions. Why is there 3000 cfu/100 ml of FC in the drainage water when there are no cows? Why is there a positive correlation between acreage of dairies/feedlots and FC, but little to no correlation between the number of dairy cows and FC? What percentage decrease in cow acreage must there be to decrease the FC counts by 90%, which is DOE's goal? What would be the effect on FC counts of recycling the drainage water back as irrigation water ("gray water"), to conserve water in this arid region?

Reference: Washington Department of Ecology, "Granger Drain Fecal Coliform Bacteria Total Maximum Daily Load Assessment and Evaluation"; WA DOE Report, 2001, draft.


sub_basin # - sub basin number
acreage - acreage of dairies and feedlots within the sub-basin in acres
fec_coli_means - fecal coliform counts in colonies per 100 milliliters

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Langkamp, G. and Hull, J., 2022. QELP Data Set 045. [online] Seattlecentral.edu. Available at: <https://seattlecentral.edu/qelp/sets/045/045.html> [Accessed 27 July 2022].

R Dataset Upload:

Use the following R code to directly access this dataset in R.

d <- read.csv("https://www.key2stats.com/Cows_and_Fecal_Coliform_1681.csv")

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