Thursday, April 25, 2013

Finding Water for Trail Runners - Part 1

Every creek is Shit Creek.
Summer is coming up!  You may already know this, but I'm a microbiology professor.  My research interests are in groundwater quality.  A lot of my trail running friends ask me if it's okay to drink creek water when they are out on the trail, but for the most part, they are looking for someone to validate their poor choice to drink creek water.  Should you drink creek water?   Yeah, it's not such a good idea.  In this post, I'll explain why, and in the next post, I'll give you some alternatives.

But Heather!  I drink stream water all the time and I never get sick!  Hasn't hurt me yet!

Well, congratulations?  Do you want to keep rolling the dice?

I can't get really sick, can I?  

Yeah, unfortunately, you can get really sick, and possibly dead.   In the US, we tend to take our water quality for granted, and I don't think most of us appreciate how amazing it is that we have clean water flowing out of our faucets.  I do, and I'm thankful for it every day.

How bad is it out there?  The EPA thinks it's reasonable for "only" 1 in 28 beachgoers to get diarrhea after swimming.  And that's after swimming, not after chug-a-lugging several liters.  Fact - there's poop in the water.  And you can't get away from it by going into the forest, because there's animals there and they all have butts too.

All those fuzzy forest critters and even some of the birds are capable of shedding microbes that make us sick.  Sometimes, public lands are even used to graze livestock, and their feces can end up in the water as well.  You won't necessarily be able to spot that.  Assume every creek is shit creek.

The consequences?  Well, perhaps, nothing will happen to you.  We're all warned about giardiasis, but the truth is, only about half of the people that get infected actually become sick.  You could get lucky.  Hooray!  Or, maybe you'll get a little sick.  But some of the illnesses you can get can be debilitating.  When a friend of mine had giardiasis, he practically lived in the bathroom.  You couldn't even have a conversation with him - and this was before smartphones and tablets!   A case of Hepatitis A or crypto might take you out of racing for an entire season.  There have been instances of water-borne transmission of E. coli  0157:H7 - and that can kill you.

But let me get a little cynical here for a second.  Are your other friends telling you that it's cool to drink from streams?  I think your other friends just want you to poop in your running shorts and blog about it, or spend most of your race 20 feet off the trail, so they can win the pint glass. If you end up sick enough to be out for a while, they might even pass around rumors that you've become a triathlete.  I may be a fan of good bathroom stories, but I'm a much better friend. 

I grew a beard, but everyone still recognizes me.
In addition to infectious diseases, water in the forest could be flat out polluted.  Do you really know the land use history for the places you are running?  For example, if you're running trip involves trails that go up into the mountains, there's a half decent chance that any given water source could be contaminated with "mine tailings", and you'll be drinking mercury, arsenic, lead, and cyanide.  Is it enough to hurt you?  I have no idea.

It can be difficult to spot polluted water.  One of the things I've realized from working at contaminated sites is that they often return to appearing physically beautiful long before the water is clean and safe.  Here's an article in the National Geographic about wildlife at Chernobyl.  An example closer to home is the Rocky Mountain Arsenal.  Are you really sure that you aren't drinking from a polluted stream?
Polluted water:  It's seldom this obvious.

Hopefully, I've convinced you to simply fill your handheld from a stream and keep on running.  In my next post, I'll help you out with some alternatives and suggest some safer practices.