What are bacteria?


  • Are microscopic, unicellular organisms that divide through cell division

  • Are found in almost every type of environment on Earth

  • Can have a variety of different functions depending on the species

Coliform bacteria...

  • Are a collection of bacteria that aid in the digestion of food

  • Live in colonies in the intestines of warm- and cold-blooded organisms

Fecal coliform bacteria...

  • Are a subgroup of coliform bacteria that are able to grow at elevated temperatures

  • Are associated only with the fecal matter of warm-blooded animals

  • When found in large concentrations, can act as indicators for the presence of other disease-causing microorganisms such as giardia or cryptosporidium

Why should I care?

The presence of fecal coliform bacteria indicates that there are feces from a warm-blooded animal contaminating the water. Escherichia coli (E. coli) is the most common form of fecal coliform bacteria and although normally present in the digestive tract of humans and other mammals, contact with outside strains can lead to infection and serious illness.

The more closely related the animal is to humans, the greater the chances are for infection to occur if humans come into contact with the bacteria either through ingestion of contaminated water or while swimming. Ingestion of other organisms who may have accumulated the bacteria in their system may also result in infection.

In 1998, 11 of Lake Whatcom's tributaries were listed as impaired waterbodies because they failed to meet state water quality standards due to high fecal coliform counts. These resulting water quality problems triggered a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) study by the Washington Department of Ecology.

How does fecal coliform bacteria enter our lakes and streams?

The most common sources for E. coli include:

  • Feces from pets and wildlife

  • Faulty septic systems and leaking sewers

  • Hobby farms

Just a few grams of pet waste can contain millions of fecal coliform colonies.

What can I do to help?

  • Pick up after your pets!

  • Get your septic tank inspected and pumped every 3-5 years

  • Report any septic and sewer leaks