Up on the roof of a government research building in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, the Canadian province that straddles Montana and North Dakota, Barbara Cade-Menun has a tarp filled with poo. Little brown pucks of cow manure that bake in the sun and freeze in the winter, where temperatures regularly drop below 5 degrees.
Cade-Menun and students are tracking how bacteria such as E. coli survive the harsh prairie winters. “f E. coli can survive here, they’ll survive anywhere,” says the CBC. The research has important implications for people living in or downstream of agricultural regions as E. coli in your water can be a very bad thing.
Thirteen years ago this month tragedy struck a small Ontario, Canada, town when E. coli bacteria got into the water system. In Walkerton, Ontario, a town of 5,000 people, 2,300 fell ill suffering from “bloody diarrhea, vomiting, cramps and fever.” Seven people died. Over time, the tragedy was traced to manure spread on a nearby farm that had managed to carry the E. coli bacteria through the ground and into the town’s water system. That, alongside regulatory missteps, caused the preventable disaster—the “most serious case of water contamination in Canadian history.”
Though steps have been taken in the region to prevent similar disasters in the future, there is still much that is unknown about how E. coli moves through a watershed. From her rooftop investigation Cade-Menun found that E. coli are sneaky little bacteria.
Cade-Menun and her colleagues found that when the temperature plummets the frozen manure pucks seem to be bacteria-free. But the bacteria aren’t dead, and when the spring warmth returns so too do the bacteria.
More from Smithsonian.com: