A study by environmental microbiology students at Mount Allison University has found there could be a link between development along the coast and fecal contamination of the water at Parlee Beach in Shediac.
More than 100 people showed up to a public symposium on microbial water quality in the Northumberland Strait at the university Monday, including many concerned citizens and representatives of municipalities along the coast and of the Department of Environment.
Prof. Douglas Campbell started working on the project in November, when he was approached by community members in the Shediac area who were concerned about continuing problems with water quality.
Since January students have been collating data from four beaches along the eastern shoreline of New Brunswick.
"They assembled about 13,000 records ... in the Northumberland Strait dating back to the 1940s," Campbell told Information Morning Moncton. "Then they started the preliminary analysis of patterns over time."
The evidence shows there are continuing problems at Murray and Parlee beaches, which are not indicative of a larger problem in the Northumberland Strait.
"Aboiteau Beach, based on one-year of data, looks quite good, Kouchibouguac looks consistently good over many years and that tells us that the problems are patchy and localized — it doesn't look like a systemic problem."
Changes in land use
One key finding was a relationship between periods of heavy rain and bacterial content in the water. An important contributor to contamination is runoff from the ground during those periods.
Campbell said that includes poorly designed septic systems or sewage lagoons that overflow with rain, and pipes in the municipal sewer system that might be poorly connected, so fecal content ends up one way or another getting into the ground and washing away into the sea.
A second group of students mapped changes in land use in Shediac over the years.
Although they indicate more research is needed to come to conclusions, they raised the possibility of land use changing from forest or wetland, into gravel — as happens during urbanization, causing more runoff into the bay, due to an increase in surfaces that doesn't allow fluids to pass through them.
When asked whether he thought the contamination could be tied to development, Campbell said, "I think that's a good hypothesis."
Things have crept back up
Campbell said there was a period in the early 2000s when the water at Parlee Beach was clean, with contamination problems in the years before and after that period of time.
"In the late 1990s, there was a previous effort to find and address problems in the area, and from the microbial counts it looks like it worked. And since then, things have crept back up."
A 1999 study by the Shediac Bay Watershed Association had pointed the finger at several culprits for dumping raw sewage into the bay at the time.
Although traces of animal feces have been found in Shediac Bay, Campbell is confident a major source of the contamination is from humans.
Last week, the province indicated it would sample the water at Parlee Beach on a daily basis and at five different locations this summer, which many think will help zero in on the problem.
"If we did a lot of sampling along that shore, intensively, we could start to identify problems quite quickly I think," said Campbell.