The contribution of human faecal pollution to eutrophication processes in drinking water reservoirs

Project Details


This project collaborated with South East Water and focused on elucidating the contribution of human faecal pollution to eutrophication processes in a reservoir site using microbial source tracking (MST) tools.

High nutrient inputs into water bodies, such as reservoirs, can result in an increase in algal blooms and costs associated with water treatment. Cyanobacteria (often known as ‘blue-green algae’) can be harmful to human health because of their production of harmful toxins. MST encompasses techniques that aim to distinguish source(s) of faecal contamination in surface and ground waters.

One relatively simple, low-cost and effective technique that has been successfully used to discriminate between human and non-human faecal contamination, involves the detection and enumeration of bacteriophages (viruses) capable of infecting anaerobic bacteria (Bacteroides spp.) present in human waste.

Application of this low-cost MST method (Bacteroides GB124 phage method) accompanied the detection and enumeration of widely used molecular MST markers (human-specific (Hubac) and ruminant-specific (RuBac). This comparative approach allowed the efficacy of the methods (in terms of method ‘specificity’ and ‘sensitivity’) to be established (when determining the source(s) of small- scale faecal contributions) and should improve the understanding of the contribution of human faecal inputs on water quality in this reservoir site.

The project aimed:

> To use two MST approaches to determine human and non-human faecal contributions to nutrient enrichment of streams feeding reservoirs.
> To undertake a critical evaluation of the use of phages capable of infecting GB124 and Hubac MST markers to identify small- scale human faecal contributions.

Key findings

The results of this study suggest that it is possible to use GB124 bacteriophages to distinguish small-scale discrete sources of human faecal contamination. In addition the results suggest that low-cost bacteriophage MST methods could be used to screen larger volumes of samples in studies such as these, allowing more expensive molecular methods to be focused on highlighted sites.

This information is valuable as it is enabling the water company to fully understand nutrient source pathways, which will permit them to develop a strategy for the management of this reservoir and to future proof the water quality of the asset at this site.

This work was apart of a new catchment management initiative launched by South East Water (SEW), which is helping the company to understand the causes of drinking water quality deterioration. Research such as this will enable them to determine which measures are required in order to address water quality problems and safe guard drinking water sources in the future.
Effective start/end date1/01/1631/12/16


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