VERNON -- The Texas AgriLife Research water quality laboratory near Vernon has been accredited as a Biosafety Lab 2 for the Environmental Protection Agency method of E. coli isolation by the National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Conference.
This accreditation is a new requirement of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on all data submitted to them for permitting or remediation purposes, said Dr. Paul DeLaune, AgriLife Research environmental soil scientist and lab director.
The accreditation would include data collected under the Watershed Protection Plan Development for Buck Creek, but also will provide many opportunities for water research throughout the High Plains and Rolling Plains in the future, DeLaune said.
The Buck Creek project is funded by the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board through federal Clean Water Act funds by the Environmental Protection Agency, said Phyllis Dyer, a research associate for AgriLife Research.
This accreditation will allow continued analysis and testing of those waters and will aid in either verifying the current water quality impairment or lead to removal from the state's list of impaired waters, Dyer said.
Monitoring of the Buck Creek Watershed, a part of the Red River Basin, began in 2004 after it was determined that the stream did not meet all Texas Surface Water Quality Standards, Dyer said.
Buck Creek is an unclassified stream that originates in Donley County near Hedley and runs east-southeast through Collingsworth and Childress counties before entering the southwestern corner of Harmon County, Okla., where it empties into the Red River.
AgriLife Research, along with the Texas State Soil and Water Board, Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Texas Water Resources Institute, Red River Authority and local soil and water conservation districts, are working to identify the specific sources of the bacteria, evaluate alternatives for restoring the creek and develop a watershed protection plan, she said.
"This accreditation means all of our data can be used to report to TCEQ for further determination of Buck Creek Watershed's overall health," Dyer said. "Hopefully, because of our research data, Buck Creek can be removed from the 303d list for bacteria impairment."
She said without the accreditation, she would not be able to submit the last two years worth of data that has been collected from Buck Creek.
Each sample Dyer collects goes through rigid processing, part of which is for testing for the E. coli existence and that is the portion that must be accredited; and the other part is for isolating DNA that can help identify the source of the E. coli.
The accredited regulations cover the time period in which it must be tested and the process of putting it through a filter funnel onto a gridded filter that is placed on a modified medium specific for E. coli. If E. coli is present, the colonies will turn magenta on the medium, Dyer said.
While that is what is necessary for accreditation, Dyer continues the processing by incubating the samples for 24 hours and then isolating E. coli colonies through various steps before they are frozen in liquid nitrogen and sent to an AgriLife Research lab in El Paso for DNA analysis.
Dyer said that is the one thing that makes this lab, as well as another AgriLife Research laboratory in College Station, unique - the ability to do the isolation work prior to DNA testing.
In addition to this work on Buck Creek, DeLaune expects the opportunity will present itself soon to work on other research projects involving E. coli now that the lab is accredited.
"Timing is critical because these bacteria tests must be processed within six hours, so the proximity to projects in the Texas Panhandle and Rolling Plains is important," he said.
The nearest other AgriLife Research laboratory accredited to test E. coli is housed in College Station, DeLaune said. That could make it prohibitive in some cases to conduct research that must be NELAC accredited since analysis of bacteria is time-sensitive.
Another area where DeLaune said the lab will play a significant role is on research he is doing to develop best management practices or techniques to improve water quality from a bacteria aspect when dealing with land applications of manure.
He also said future work may include other creeks in the Rolling Plains and High Plains that have been listed on the impaired waterways list due to bacteria. At each one, research would be designed to validate the impairment, determine the source and implement best management strategies to mitigate the problem.
Dyer said after six years of monitoring Buck Creek, all indications are that it is not excessively contaminated, and she hopes to be able to prove it should be taken off the Texas list of impaired water bodies.
DeLaune said the lab could help them evaluate the effectiveness of the many best management practices that have been identified for conservation to see if they help with water quality or if they are primarily just managing erosion control and sediment-bound contaminants.
"While erosion and sediment-bound nutrients may be reduced by a particular management practice, the practice may do little to reduce soluble nutrients or bacteria," he said. "Soluble nutrients degrade water quality more rapidly since they are directly available for use by aquatic life such as algae."
The most important thing is the accredited lab allows the AgriLife Research staff to continue to do their own work in-house, and it will open the door for many more opportunities down the road, DeLaune said.