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Modeling the release of Escherichia coli from soil into overland flow under raindrop impact


Pathogen transport through the environment is complicated, involving a variety of physical, chemical, and biological processes. This study considered the transfer of microorganisms from soil into overland flow under rain-splash conditions. Although microorganisms are colloidal particles, they are commonly quantified as colony-forming units (CFUs) per volume rather than as a mass or number of particles per volume, which poses a modeling challenge. However, for very small particles that essentially remain suspended after being ejected into ponded water and for which diffusion can be neglected, the Gao model, originally derived for solute transfer from soil, describes particle transfer into suspension and is identical to the Hairsine–Rose particle erosion model for this special application. Small-scale rainfall experiments were conducted in which an Escherichia coli (E. coli) suspension was mixed with a simple soil (9:1 sand-to-clay mass ratio). The model fit the experimental E. coli data. Although re-conceptualizing the Gao solute model as a particle suspension model was convenient for accommodating the unfortunate units of CFU ml−1, the Hairsine–Rose model is insensitive to assumptions about E. coli per CFU as long as the assumed initial mass concentration of E. coli is very small compared to that of the soil particle classes. Although they undoubtedly actively interact with their environment, this study shows that transport of microorganisms from soil into overland storm flows can be reasonably modeled using the same principles that have been applied to small mineral particles in previous studies.

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