Testing key to knowing what’s in your water – and protecting your farm

Water testing has long been part and parcel of buying and selling agricultural properties. But knowing exactly what’s in your soil and well water is becoming increasingly important to safeguard both human health and property values.

E.coli O157:H7 is one pathogen that can have serious human health implications but that many people don’t realize may be present in their rural environments. A campaign is now underway in Alberta to raise awareness and to encourage farmers, ranchers and rural homeowners to test their soil and water for the presence of this bacterium.

E. coli O157:H7 can grow in the intestinal lining of cattle and other livestock and is transferred into the environment through their manure. In humans, it can cause fever, vomiting and diarrhea, with severe cases resulting in long term kidney damage and even death. The pathogen made Canadian headlines in 2000, when the water supply of the small Ontario town of Walkerton became contaminated; seven people died and thousands more became ill. Most recently the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) announced a national recall in Canada for Walnuts contaminated with E.coli O157:H7. .

Currently, E. coli O157:H7 prevention is managed only during processing and only in meat; its potential presence in water and soil is not being addressed. E. coli O157:H7, for example, is not on the Alberta recommended testing list, but Calgary-based Benchmark Labs, has included it as part of its soil or water testing regime. According to company CEO Chris Bolton, more needs to be done to monitor and detect E. coli O157:H7 in soil and water to prevent illness – and potential economic damage to ranchers, farmers and rural property owners.

“This pathogen is now routinely found on most livestock operations in Canada. During the winter, it can very easily be picked up off holding pens or fields that received spread manure by snow and flow into rivers and streams as part of spring runoff,” he says. “It lives well and for a long time in water and soil, which means it can get picked up and end up in places where we don’t want it.”

Awareness and testing is particularly important in Alberta, he says, due to the province’s high concentration of cattle and the clustering of agriculture around high traffic corridors. Approximately sixty per cent of Canada’s beef feedlots are located in Alberta, and the close proximity of agricultural operations to urban or recreational property owners has increased the number of complaints, court cases and environmental hearings in the province.

For example, Roseburn Ranches west of High River was recently the focus of a public hearing by the Alberta Environmental Appeals Board. Opponents of an expansion of the facility lodged complaints about smell, but more importantly, also about possible contamination of soil and water.

The presence E. coli O157:H7 can lead to a reduction in property values, says Bolton, citing an example from late last year, where an Alberta land deal fell through after the buyer was unable to secure a mortgage when a bank-requested soil sampled tested positive for the pathogen. He expects to see more of these situations arise, which is why he feels proactive testing is key.

“The question is how we can get ahead of the issue. Testing your soil and water for E. coli will help you know what you’re dealing with, what the level and extent of exposure is,” he says. “This way, a mitigation strategy can be put in place before it turns into a big problem that can potentially become very expensive.”

“You can’t manage what you don’t monitor,” says Bolton, adding that it’s important that farmers in particular take this issue seriously. “Let’s deal with this proactively and in so doing, there is less of risk of our cash-strapped governments simply deciding to regulate the issue and impose fines.”

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