Residents in rural communities across Canada collect potable water from aquifers. Fecal contaminants from sewage and agricultural runoffs can penetrate aquifers, posing a public health risk. Standard methods for detecting fecal contamination test for fecal indicator bacteria (FIB), but the presence of these do not identify sources of contamination. In contrast, DNA-based diagnostic tools can achieve this important objective. We employed quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) and high-throughput DNA sequencing to trace fecal contamination sources in Wainfleet, a rural Ontario township that has been under the longest active boil water advisory in Canada due to FIB contamination in groundwater wells. Using traditional methods, we identified FIBs indicating persistent fecal pollution in well waters. We used 16S rRNA sequencing to profile groundwater microbial communities and identified Campylobacteraceae as a fecal contamination DNA marker in septic tank effluents (STEs). We also identified Turicibacter and Gallicola as a potential cow and chicken fecal contamination marker, respectively. Using human specific Bacteroidales markers, we identified leaking septic tanks as the likely primary fecal contamination source in some of Wainfleet's groundwater. Overall, the results support the use of sequencing-based methods to augment traditional water quality testing methods and help end-users assess fecal contamination levels and identify point and non-point pollution sources.
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