Nov. 14 2012 12:00 AM

State, county officials identify Potter Park Zoo as a potential source of elevated E. coli levels in the Red Cedar River due to runoff from animal enclosures


As visitors marvel over the more than 500 different creatures at Potter Park Zoo, they probably aren’t concerned about where all that critter feces goes. Which is to say, they are probably unaware of the out-of-date maze of sewer pipes beneath their feet that lead directly from animal enclosures to the nearby Red Cedar River, possibly contributing to elevated levels of E. coli in the water.

“It’s the way the zoo was built,” said Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann. “Nobody was concerned about a little coyote poop getting in the river. We know there’s a problem and we’re working toward fixing it. This is not simple stuff. We have no clue where the pipes are.”

Not knowing the scope of the problem is a major challenge for Lindemann: The drain system has been augmented numerous times over the decades to fit the zoo’s needs — he only has “rudimentary maps” of the system. He estimated that it could take up to two years to assess the full extent of the drainage problems and possibly another decade to fix the issues. 

The crowded waterfowl pond is just a few feet away from the banks of the Red Cedar River and has an overflow pipe that discharges directly into the river. Drains can be seen in the floors of many of the animal habitats at the zoo, including the pig, donkey and Patagonian hare habitats. During a recent visit to the zoo, an employee was seen hosing the interior of the monkey house into a floor drain. 

However, the zoo’s contribution to the overall E. coli level of the river is not easy to estimate. 

The water resources division of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality stated in a June 29 report that the zoo has “known storm water contamination issues.” This Total Maximum Daily Load for E. coli report was generated in response to elevated levels of the bacteria in portions of the Red Cedar River and Grand River watersheds. 

Page 12 of the report identifies two potential sources of E. coli at the zoo: Runoff that occurs as a result of rainwater is identified as one source, and the zoo’s illicit storm water connections are pegged as another source. Both are said to “involve animal waste from various sources (including waterfowl, camels, monkeys, and a Patagonian hare) and potential sanitary cross connections,” the report says. 

Lindemann suspects that the entire zoo will need new plumbing, but nobody knows what the costs for such a project will be until the location of all the pipes is confirmed. Payal Ravani, the marketing coordinator for the zoo, said that the zoo will work with the Drain Commissioner’s Office to address the issue, but she said the zoo takes active measures to keep feces out of the river, such as throwing it away in the trash, and disputes that animal enclosures are causing spikes in E. coli levels in the river.

“We believe in the Federal Clean Water Act and complying with its standards,” she said in an email. 

Ravani said “all animal feces are manually removed from the exhibits and put in the trash which is emptied several times a week by Granger. The feces of animals from Potter Park Zoo’s collection do not go into the river.” According to Ravani, the source of the elevated E. coli levels in that portion of the river are possibly from the feces of a large white-tail deer population and an abundance of Canadian geese outside the park’s gates.

But that doesn’t square with findings by the county Health Department, the state or a report by an independent environmental engineering firm.

Mark Piavis, of the Public Health Division at the Ingham County Health Department, said that a storm water connection, such as the one at Potter Park Zoo, would “certainly add an additional E. coli loading to the river.” He added that the Elm Street water-sampling site downstream of the zoo consistently has high levels of E. coli, but that further testing would be needed to verify that the discharges from the zoo are a substantial contributor to the high levels.

There are a number of different strains of E. coli bacteria, most strains of which are harmless to humans, Piavis said. One strain of the bacteria, E. coli O157:H7, can cause severe bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Children under the age of 5 and the elderly are prone to developing hemolytic uremic syndrome, a potentially deadly condition that causes the destruction of red blood cells and subsequent kidney failure.

A recent report by Malcolm Pirnie of the water division of ARCADIS, an engineering and consulting firm, said the firm found “several outdoor exhibits [that] can contribute animal waste to the storm water system” and “significant solids deposition in storm sewers.”

Zoos around the country handle their excess feces in a variety of ways. Cleveland Metroparks Zoo has a composting program called ZooPoo, in which the zoo sells the compost for $40 a cubic yard. The Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle has a similar program where it sells the compost at the Fall Fecal Fest, an annual fundraiser. A “poo-powered” vehicle roams the grounds at the new elephant exhibit at the Denver Zoo. The zoo expects to convert 90 percent of the feces and trash from the zoo into clean energy. Ravani said that the Potter Park Zoo would consider a composting program, but it would be difficult to manage because the park lies on a flood plain.

While officials recognize drainage problems at the zoo, plenty of unknowns exist in the area.

“There are a variety of discharges occurring near the zoo,” said Christe Alwin in the Lansing district office of the DEQ. “That is a very old area of the city and there are a lot of unknowns as to where the discharges are coming from.”

Since the Red Cedar River flows from east to west, Alwin said the water absorbs pollutants from multiple sources before it flows past the Potter Park Zoo. According to Lindemann, “seeking and finding” these pollution sources is no small task. 

Ruth Kline-Robach, the outreach specialist for Michigan State University’s Institute of Water Research, said the only way to determine the exact source of E. coli is to test the DNA of the bacteria. The institute, which is working on a water management plan for the Red Cedar watershed, monitors bacteria levels in rivers and streams throughout the watershed. Kline-Robach said that E. coli is a “bacterial standard,” which means that if the bacteria is present, other unsavory organisms may be lurking in the waters as well.

“The levels for total body contact, which means if we were going to dive right into the water, shouldn’t be over 300 bacteria per 100 mL of water,” Kline-Robach said. “The levels for partial body contact are 1,000 per 100 mL of water. The levels in the river are not really egregious. We shouldn’t all be panicking.”

According to the data in the MDEQ’s June report, the E. coli count hovers around the range of 600 bacteria per 100 mL downstream of Potter Park Zoo. These numbers can spike into the thousands throughout the watershed after it rains due to the high volume of pollutants carried to the water via storm water runoff. While diving into the water may be hazardous to one’s health, Kline-Robach said that monikers like the “Dead Cedar River” are unwarranted and that any body of water that is near an urban area is bound to have pollution issues. 

Monitoring the levels of bacteria will continue with the goal of improving the water throughout the Red Cedar and Grand River watersheds. Lindemann said that he is working to repair all the storm water problems under his jurisdiction, and the problems at the zoo are on his list.

“We are aware that it is an illicit discharge and it has to be fixed,” he said about the storm drain system at the zoo. “Is it an issue? Yes. Are we going to fix it? Yes.”