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Microbial Source Tracking in Aquatic Ecosystems: The State of the Science and an Assessment of Needs


Fecal pollution of aquatic ecosystems is a significant problem in many areas across Canada. This pollution can come from diverse sources such as municipal wastewater effluents, livestock manure and wildlife droppings. Its impacts on human health and local economies can be significant through waterborne disease outbreaks, boil water advisories, contamination of irrigation waters, and beach and shellfish closures.

There is a growing need for a science-based approach to determine the source of fecal pollution in aquatic ecosystems. Identifying the correct fecal pollution source could help mediate conflicts between stakeholders in communities, and lead towards appropriate, cost-effective corrective actions to prevent future pollution. Microbial source tracking (MST) is an emerging field that offers considerable promise for determining the source of fecal pollution contaminating aquatic ecosystems. However, the field is still under development. There are no standardized methods, and there have been few field studies to test the reliability and accuracy of MST techniques.

Beach closure sign | Photo: Tom EdgeAlthough MST is still evolving, the potential benefits are significant enough for a national discussion on the state of the MST science and fecal pollution source tracking needs across Canada. With this in mind, a Microbial Source Tracking Workshop was held March 7-8, 2005, in Toronto, Ontario. The impetus for this workshop arose from a desire to clarify the state of MST readiness for practical application. On the one hand, there has been heightened interest in MST by policy and program managers at all levels of government to determine sources of fecal contamination in diverse aquatic ecosystems across Canada. On the other hand, while some practical MST case studies exist, the field is still largely under development and recent scientific publications evaluating MST methods have pointed to some limitations of the field (Griffith et al. 2003; Stoeckel et al. 2004). The timing seemed optimal to bring researchers together with policy and program managers to develop a realistic assessment of the state of the science, and get practical feedback from practitioners on their needs related to tracking sources of fecal contamination.

Workshop Objectives

Workshop objectives were to strengthen the linkage between Canadian water policy and program decision makers and MST research experts by providing:

1) MST Science Assessment to help municipal, provincial, federal and other decision makers obtain sufficient scientific knowledge about MST to shape their program, policy and regulatory needs. The science assessment would assess the state of MST science and its readiness for widespread application across Canada .

2) MST Needs Assessment to help the MST science and research community better understand Canadian water policy and program needs pertaining to fecal pollution. The needs assessment would characterize fecal pollution challenges across Canada .

3) Identification of MST Research Priorities in Canada.

4) MST Networking Forum to exchange MST information, network, make contacts, and identify opportunities to sustain dialogue between water policy decision makers and MST research experts.

Workshop Organization

The workshop was sponsored by Environment Canada's National Water Research Institute and Ontario Region (Great Lakes Sustainability Fund), the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and the City of Toronto, with organizational participation from Health Canada and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada .

The Workshop was organized by a planning committee of the following individuals:

Dr. Tom Edge - National Water Research Institute, Environment Canada
Karl Schaefer - Science and Technology Liaison Division, Environment Canada
Dr. Todd Howell - Environmental Monitoring and Reporting Branch, Ontario Ministry of the Environment
Patrick Chessie - Water and Wastewater Services Division, City ofToronto
Will Robertson and Diane Medeiros - Water Quality and Health Bureau, Health Canada
Dr. Vic Gannon - Laboratory for Foodborne Zoonoses, Public Health Agency of Canada
Dr. Ed Topp - Soil and Environmental Sciences , Agriculture andAgri-Food Canada

The Workshop was held March 7-8, 2005, at the City of Toronto 's Metro Hall, 55 John Street, Toronto, Ontario. It consisted of invited presentations with opportunities for questions, and a plenary discussion of MST drivers and needs (see Agenda in Appendix B). Participants were invited from the MST research community, water and wastewater managers in municipal/regional governments, point and non-point source pollution experts in watershed-based organizations (such as conservation authorities in Ontario), water regulatory officials and program/policy managers in provincial, territorial and federal governments, and in related water quality professional associations and organizations. Over 70 people participated in the Workshop (see List of Attendees in Appendix A).

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