ADDISON COUNTY — Between golden rays of early morning light last Wednesday, three volunteers for the Addison County Riverwatch Collaborative weaved through patches of poison parsnip along the Lemon Fair River. Middlebury College professor Kathy Morse, Cornwall’s David Anderson and Starksboro’s Matt Witten were taking samples and running various tests to monitor the Otter Creek tributary’s health.
Filling a key void in state and federal funding, the group records data on Addison County tributaries for government agencies to better understand why, for example, Otter Creek’s E. coli levels have been consistently high. In addition to E. coli counts, the volunteers record phosphorus levels, turbidity, water temperature, air temperature and total nitrogen.
Thanks to data compiled by Morse last month, public officials know that E. coli levels in the Lemon Fair River were 15 times greater than they were last year at this time and about 8.5 times higher than the state water safety threshold for swimming, which was previously the strictest in the nation.
Kathy Morse, Lemon Fair River coordinator for the Addison County Riverwatch Collaborative, holds up a water sample that will be sent to a state lab to test for E. coli.
Last Wednesday, the Lemon Fair crew took new measurements for the month of July. Anderson dipped a jug mounted on the end of a long pylon into the river, while Witten took various environmental measurements. Morse cracked open sample tubes, filled them using Anderson’s contraption and quickly stored them away.
“Once I break this seal,” she said, “we’ve got six hours to get the samples to the lab.”
With a comprehensive slate of samples to draw from four locations along the Lemon Fair, the group worked fast to get samples up to the University of Vermont’s Jeffords Center lab while they were still viable for testing.
Since the early ’90s, the volunteer group has monitored the environmental health of tributaries flowing into the Otter Creek. Today, the collaborative collects data on the Middlebury River, New Haven River, Lemon Fair River, Mud Creek, Little Otter Creek and Otter Creek.
Certain members of the collaborative are charged with overseeing data collection on given rivers, and Witten is the group’s coordinator — a position that was, until recently, unfilled for the past three years.
“The state does a lot of monitoring,” said Witten. “But it relies on groups like the Riverwatch Collaborative because it doesn’t have enough stations to monitor these rivers on its own.”
Ethan Swift, an environmental analyst for the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) who oversees the collaborative’s efforts for the state, explained the important role that the volunteer group and others like it play in Vermont.
“It comes down to the fact that the state and some of our other partners are very limited in the resources we have to do comprehensive monitoring and assessment work,” said Swift. “To have partnerships with volunteer groups, like the collaborative, is crucial for getting a more accurate and complete picture of water quality conditions.”
David Anderson, a Cornwall resident who volunteers for the river collaborative, draws water for sampling from the Lemon Fair River.
The data collected by such groups helps the state identify E. coli and phosphorus trends, as well as hone in on their sources.
“The collaborative has been collecting data in some cases since 1992, so we have a long-term data set to look at and that’s crucial for looking at trends in water quality degradation and improvement,” said Swift. “Having that data record really helps inform our management decisions. More specifically, it helps to pinpoint where there may be issues that effect water quality on the landscape.
“It helps define geographic areas to look at in terms of interventions and identifying where problems might be and where improvements are taking place. It’s really a tremendous resource.”
By helping ANR and the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) identify problem areas, the collaborative’s data has been instrumental in helping many local farms obtain grants to curb their environmental impacts, said Craig Miner, who is director of the Addison County FSA and volunteers for the collaborative.
“We’ve been able to use that data to provide some documentation for a need for federal monies to help farmers put practices in place to help filter out runoff by establishing manure storages and barn improvement projects,” he said.
UPS AND DOWNS
When it comes to recreational waters, Vermont has traditionally had the most stringent safety standard in the country.
While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that states set a safety standard of 235 E. coli organisms per 100 milliliters of water, Vermont’s previous standard was 77 E. coli per 100 ml, which was the strictest standard in the nation. The EPA estimates that for every 1,000 people who swim in water at the recommended standard, six to eight will fall ill from E. coli. The highest standard that a state can adopt is 548 E. coli per 100 ml, which the EPA estimates would trigger illness in 14 swimmers out of 1,000.
On May 17, the Vermont Department of Health raised the state's safety standard for swimming to 235 E. coli per 100 ml of water. A shift that State Toxicologist Sarah Vose said was insignificant.
“In the whole scheme of things they’re both very low,” she said. “This means that more beaches can be open. In years past, when a beach had a sample that was 100, we would have to close it, which means less recreation and less fun. But now it can be open if it’s 235.”
Swift said that the ANR is currently reevaluating its water quality standard. Vose acknowledged that the ANR standard is still set at 77 E. coli organisms.
By this standard, Otter Creek is considered “bacteria impaired” from the confluence of the Middlebury River to the mouth of the Otter Creek, where it pours into Lake Champlain. This label means that this stretch of Otter Creek consistently fails to meet Vermont water safety standards, said Swift, who just finished a management plan for the watershed.
In June of this year, both the Otter Creek and the Lemon Fair River showed sizable increases in E. coli levels from last year’s tests. In June of 2011, Lemon Fair samples showed an average of 127.4 E. coli per 100 ml of water. That number grew to 1,986 E. coli this year. Otter Creek E. coli counts also jumped up from last June, growing from 31.84 to 248.9 this June.
Swift said that these numbers vary throughout the season depending on weather conditions, water conditions and local land uses, and some river sections, like the stretch of Lewis Creek that passes under Route 7 in Ferrisburgh, showed decreased levels of E. coli this year.
Nonetheless, samples drawn from many state watersheds are showing increased E. coli levels this year. But Swift and his colleagues at ANR aren’t certain what’s behind the Lemon Fair’s drastically elevated E. coli counts and other bacteria upticks across the state.
“We are not sure why … but we are seeing this in other surface waters around the state, possibly as a result of (Tropical Storm) Irene,” he said.
And despite the fact that the Lemon Fair has the highest E. coli counts in Addison County this year, it’s not labeled as bacteria impaired.
“Part of our challenge and part of the reason we haven’t listed the Lemon Fair as being impaired for E. coli is that a lot of wildlife have access to the stream,” said Swift. “We know that there’s an incredible amount of beaver activity in that watershed and a large amount of migratory water fowl that stop there … so there also may be high levels (of E. coli) due to natural causes.
“It’s just too difficult to pinpoint and say this is coming from agriculture … We say that there’s a fair amount of evidence to suggest it is impaired, but not enough.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]
Due to documents provided by the Agency of Natural Resources, the Independent initially reported that the water safety standard for swimming is 77 E. coli organisms per 100 ml of water, which is incorrect. The standard of 77 E. coli per 100 ml was raised on May 17, 2012 to match the federal standard of 235 E. coli per 100 ml of water. ANR, however, has not changed what's known as the state's "water quality standard." That standard is still set at 77 E. coli per 100 ml of water and will be explained in greater depth in an upcoming Independent article. According to ANR Environmental Analyst Ethan Swift and State Toxicologist Sarah Vose, ANR is in the process of revising this safety standard.
The map below shows main sites where the Addison County Riverwatch Collaborative draws water samples to test for indicators of river health. For a map guide of the site names, click here.