Area rivers enjoy good health; but RiverWatch group continues vigilance
ADDISON COUNTY — Record rainfall this spring and summer has swelled area waterways but has not swept in appreciably higher levels of bacteria or phosphorous, according to preliminary testing results compiled by the Addison County Riverwatch Collaborative (ACRC).
“The plethora of water doesn’t seem to have changed things that much,” said Matt Witten, coordinator of the ACRC, an organization that monitors rivers (and many of their tributaries) in Addison County, including the Lemon Fair River, Otter Creek, Middlebury Rover, Little Otter Creek, Lewis Creek and New Haven River. Once every month, from April to September, around 20 ACRC volunteers collect water samples from approximately 30 sites along these waterways. The state of Vermont then analyzes the samples for phosphorous, nitrogen, turbidity, pathogens and other elements that can undermine the health of rivers and the people who use them.
While one might suspect the high river levels and soaking rains have ushered in more agricultural runoff and E. coli bacteria from animal waste, ACRC tests aren’t showing such evidence — at least not yet. Witten acknowledged that the rainfall probably produced an initial “pulse” of pollutants, but they were apparently quickly absorbed within the water.
“If anything, in June, (the rainfall) diluted things,” he said. “The readings were lower.”
But the ACRC will remain vigilant and diligent in its testing, something it has been doing since 1997 in association with area communities, environmental groups and watershed organizations. The Vermont Department of Conservation Lab processes batches of approximately 30 samples the volunteers collect each month, while the Addison County Regional Planning Commission provides meetings space and other services. Ferrisburgh, Lincoln, New Haven, Starksboro, Bristol, Vergennes and Salisbury residents have provided financial support for the ACRC’s activities.
While the recent preliminary test results are good, Witten noted some “trouble” spots. One is in Lewis Creek, near the Tyler Bridge in Monkton, where E. coli levels were recently measured at around 2,000 organisms per 100 milliliters. The Vermont Department of Health’s newly revised safety standard for swimming is 235 organisms per 100 milliliters.
Also of concern is a recent reading of 344 organisms per 100 milliliters at the Seeley swimming hole off Shard Villa Road.
Heidi Willis, ACRC board president, said a better picture of the health of the county’s rivers will be known before Town Meeting Day 2014, when all of the sampling reports are codified in a final report that should be completed by next February.
In the meantime, the groups and its volunteers will continue to gather samples and work to reverse plans by the U.S. Geological Survey to remove 16 of its stream gauges in the Lake Champlain Basin. Those gauges help measure the flow of waterways within the Champlain Valley. The ACRC is particularly concerned about the scheduled removal by Sept. 30 of gauges on the Little Otter Creek, Lewis Creek, New Haven River and LaPlatte River.
“Stream flow information is essential for analyzing overall water quality as well as for understanding and tracking floods,” Witten said. “These gauges have provided that type of information on a continual basis. Addison County Riverwatch Collaborative, as well as several other partners including Trout Unlimited, are very concerned that would be shooting ourselves in the foot by taking away these most basic and reliable sources of river data.”
The collaborative is also looking for a coordinator to lead sampling for the Lower Otter Creek and Little Otter Creek in the Vergennes-Ferrisburgh area. Anyone interested in taking up that task should contact Witten at 434-3236, or at [email protected].
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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