Microbial source tracking (MST) is a complex process that includes many decision-making steps. Once a contamination problem has been defined, the potential user of MST tools must thoroughly consider study objectives before deciding upon a source identifier, a detection method, and an analytical approach to apply to the problem. Regardless of which MST protocol is chosen, underlying assumptions can affect the results and interpretation. It is crucial to incorporate tests of those assumptions in the study quality-control plan to help validate results and facilitate interpretation.
Detailed descriptions of MST objectives, protocols, and assumptions are provided in this report to assist in selection and application of MST tools for water-quality investigations. Several case studies illustrate real-world applications of MST protocols over a range of settings, spatial scales, and types of contamination. Technical details of many available source identifiers and detection methods are included as appendixes. By use of this information, researchers should be able to formulate realistic expectations for the information that MST tools can provide and, where possible, successfully execute investigations to characterize sources of fecal contamination to resource waters.