Extended survival of fecal bacteria in sediment can obscure the source and extent of fecal contamination in agricultural settings. The variability in fecal coliform/fecal streptococci (FC/FS) ratios with time and discrepancies between observable fecal sources and measured FC/FS ratios in shallow surface water from agricultural watersheds may be explained by examining FC and FS mortality rates in response to ambient temperature and sediment particle size. We measured FC and FS mortality rates at three different temperatures and in three feces-amended sediments with different particle size in a laboratory study. In controlled conditions, using physiological saline to reduce cell death by osmotic shock, FC mortality rates exceeded FS mortality rates. These rates declined as sediment particle-size shrank and as temperature decreased. There was no interaction between these two factors in determining fecal bacteria persistence. The apparent half-lives of FCs exceeded those of FS, even though mortality rates were higher, because of FC regrowth shortly after deposition. The FC/FS ratio is influenced by temperature, the presence of sediment, and sediment particle size. In warm conditions, FC regrowth increases FC/FS ratios to levels indicative of human contamination even where none clearly exists. These factors interfere with the interpretation of the FC/FS ratio and contribute to the difficulty of its use in agricultural settings.

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Published in Journal of Environmental Quality, v. 25, no. 6, p. 1216-1220.

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