How citizen scientists are making beaches safer in Windsor-Essex

University of Windsor researchers are enlisting the help of local volunteers to help them locate harmful E. coli
By Blake Roberts - Published on Aug 29, 2017
Shelley Ross is one of 450 volunteers who collected water samples in Windsor-Essex. (Photo by Blake Roberts)



WINDSOR — Shelley Ross is an administrator with the Windsor Police Service in her day job, but on a sunny August Saturday morning, she was taking a water sample at Sand Point Beach in Windsor.

She was a citizen scientist for a day.

“I’m interested in science, but I'm not trained in it at all, so I thought, ‘this is cool. I can actually do this and contribute.’”

Ross was one of about 450 volunteer water samplers who pulled on surgical gloves and dipped sterile bottles into waterways across Windsor-Essex. The initiative is part of a project at the University of Windsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research (GLIER) to more accurately assess where dangerous E. coli pathogens are and why they’re there.

Not all E. coli bacteria are pathogens, or bacteria that cause disease, says Subba Rao Chaganti, GLIER’s lead researcher. In fact, our guts contain harmless E. coli bacteria.

And simply finding E. coli does not necessarily mean there are dangerous pathogens present. But that doesn’t stop health units from closing beaches. Last summer, six Windsor-Essex beaches closed at one point or another. There were also 67 “posted” days, when beach-goers were advised to swim with caution.

“There are a couple of bacteria like E. coli O157 that are pathogenic, but there are several strains that are not,” says Chaganti. “We are developing source tracking tools to determine where the bad E. coli is coming from.”

In the lab, Chaganti and his colleagues will analyze the citizen scientists’ samples using an innovative technique to identify pathogenic E. coli through their DNA, which is faster than traditional methods of growing a bacteria culture.

This is second phase of GLIER’s water quality analysis project. Last year 20 citizen scientists collected samples from seven Windsor-Essex public beaches every day from June to August.

This year the project was much shorter in duration: the citizen scientists took samples from more than two-dozen sites on Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie and their tributaries in a single day. Chaganti says this one-day analysis will give the scientists a broader picture of where bad bacteria exist, and help the researchers trace where they come from.  

Chaganti says the information will be used for mapping and computer modelling. Eventually, GLIER will publish a map of E. coli hotspots among Windsor-Essex’s 18 rivers and streams and 10 public beaches.

It will also allow the researchers to better understand how urbanization, industry, and agriculture impact water quality.

And Chaganti says the community engagement through the citizen scientists is a crucial part of the project. “We are bringing awareness of what’s happening around us. We are surrounded by water, so we need to know what’s going on, because if the bacteria changes, the whole ecosystem changes.”

That motivates Ross, who volunteered to take two samples: one at Sand Point Beach and another at Windsor Marina. “This is a way anybody can contribute. It really engages you at a level that just reading, hearing, and keeping up on things doesn’t. So that’s really why I wanted to do this. It’s really easy to do, as well.” 

Blake Roberts is an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Windsor and Wayne State University in Detroit. 

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