Quantifying faecal indicator organism hydrological transfer pathways and phases in agricultural catchments

S. Murphy, P. Jordan, P.-E. Mellander, V. O'Flaherty

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Citations (Scopus)


Abstract Faecal indicator organisms (FIOs) can impact on water quality and pose a health and environmental risk. The transfer of FIOs, such as Escherichia coli (E. coli), from land to water is driven by hydrological connectivity and may follow the same flowpaths as nutrients, from agricultural and human sources. This study investigated E. coli transfer in two catchment areas with high source and transport pressures. These pressures were: organic phosphorus (P) loading; human settlement; conduits and fissures in a grassland karst area; and clay rich and impermeable soils in a mixed arable area. The occurrence of E. coli and its transport pathways, along with the pathways of nutrients, were studied using a combination of targeted FIO sampling, during different hydrological phases and events, and high resolution nutrient analysis. The quick flow component in both catchments was found to be a more potent vector for E. coli, and was coincident with the total P flowpaths using a P Loadograph Recession Analysis (LRA). The karst grassland catchment was found to be a transport limited system and the mixed arable catchment a source limited system. Hence, despite the grassland catchment being a potentially higher FIO source, the E. coli loads leaving the catchment were low compared to the mixed arable catchment. E. coli load whole-event comparisons also indicated that the grassland karst transfers tended to be much lower on falling phases of runoff, while the arable catchment, over greywacke and mudstone geology, showed little change between the phases. Furthermore, the arable catchment showed asymptotic decline of sustained E. coli loads towards low flows, which may be indicative of chronic point sources. These results indicate the dominance of transport mechanisms over source mechanisms for mass E. coli loads and also chronic loads during low flow. These will be important considerations for risk assessment and mitigation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)286-299
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 1 Jul 2015


  • Catchments
  • E. coli
  • faecal indicator organisms
  • phosphorus


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