Maxent estimation of aquatic Escherichia coli stream impairment

PeerJ. 2018 Sep 13:6:e5610. doi: 10.7717/peerj.5610. eCollection 2018.


Background: The leading cause of surface water impairment in United States' rivers and streams is pathogen contamination. Although use of fecal indicators has reduced human health risk, current approaches to identify and reduce exposure can be improved. One important knowledge gap within exposure assessment is characterization of complex fate and transport processes of fecal pollution. Novel modeling processes can inform watershed decision-making to improve exposure assessment.

Methods: We used the ecological model, Maxent, and the fecal indicator bacterium Escherichia coli to identify environmental factors associated with surface water impairment. Samples were collected August, November, February, and May for 8 years on Sinking Creek in Northeast Tennessee and analyzed for 10 water quality parameters and E. coli concentrations. Univariate and multivariate models estimated probability of impairment given the water quality parameters. Model performance was assessed using area under the receiving operating characteristic (AUC) and prediction accuracy, defined as the model's ability to predict both true positives (impairment) and true negatives (compliance). Univariate models generated action values, or environmental thresholds, to indicate potential E. coli impairment based on a single parameter. Multivariate models predicted probability of impairment given a suite of environmental variables, and jack-knife sensitivity analysis removed unresponsive variables to elicit a set of the most responsive parameters.

Results: Water temperature univariate models performed best as indicated by AUC, but alkalinity models were the most accurate at correctly classifying impairment. Sensitivity analysis revealed that models were most sensitive to removal of specific conductance. Other sensitive variables included water temperature, dissolved oxygen, discharge, and NO3. The removal of dissolved oxygen improved model performance based on testing AUC, justifying development of two optimized multivariate models; a 5-variable model including all sensitive parameters, and a 4-variable model that excluded dissolved oxygen.

Discussion: Results suggest that E. coli impairment in Sinking Creek is influenced by seasonality and agricultural run-off, stressing the need for multi-month sampling along a stream continuum. Although discharge was not predictive of E. coli impairment alone, its interactive effect stresses the importance of both flow dependent and independent processes associated with E. coli impairment. This research also highlights the interactions between nutrient and fecal pollution, a key consideration for watersheds with multiple synergistic impairments. Although one indicator cannot mimic theplethora of existing pathogens in water, incorporating modeling can fine tune an indicator's utility, providing information concerning fate, transport, and source of fecal pollution while prioritizing resources and increasing confidence in decision making.

Keywords: Environmental microbiology; Fecal indicators; Statistical modeling; Surface Water quality.

Grants and funding

This work was supported by a contract with the Tennessee Valley Authority (Award # 0025252) and a grant from the East Tennessee State University’s school of Graduate Studies and Graduate Council. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.