River Watch group has some concerns with local waters

MIDDLEBURY — At its volunteer training session in March, Addison County River Watch Collaborative had a standing-room-only crowd of eager water samplers, and, since then, one morning per month those volunteers from many Addison County communities have been venturing out to collect bottles of water from area streams. This year the river monitoring collaborative established several new sampling sites on the upper Middlebury River in Ripton, and also is still monitoring five other rivers in the county, an ongoing effort designed to tease out trends in water quality.
Matthew Witten, coordinator for the River Watch Collaborative, said, “We are thrilled to have so many conscientious and enthusiastic volunteers helping collect water samples on local rivers.” Witten explained that there are about 20 volunteers who go out simultaneously on the first Wednesday of each month to collect containers of water that then are analyzed by the Vermont DEC laboratory in Burlington.
“April sampling this year was a near freeze-out,” Witten chuckled. “We had to postpone the sampling for a week just for some of our volunteers to be able to access open water!” He said that, despite the icy start to the season, sampling crews have done well, even the new handful of people collecting water from the relatively pristine branches of the Middlebury River in its higher elevations.
Addison County River Watch releases provisional E.coli readings to the public “because of their relevance to swimming safety,” Witten said. The first provisional E.coli results of the year were recently posted by the state. “Provisional” means that the data could still be revised upon further analysis. The data from the June sampling event in Addison County revealed some high bacteria counts.
“Provisional results from some sampling stations on all six of the rivers we monitor show E.coli levels above the Vermont state health-based standard,” said Kristen Underwood of South Mountain Consulting in Bristol, also a technical consultant to River Watch. She said that, compared to June 2013, this June’s E. coli readings were, “In a number of cases an order of magnitude higher.”
Witten said, “These high levels of pathogens may be due to the rains which immediately preceded the June sampling. Manure has been spread on many fields in the past few weeks and fertilizers have been used on gardens and lawns. E.coli can also derive from failing septic systems or wildlife sources such as beavers, deer, and waterfowl.”
Witten explained that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has used findings from epidemiological studies to develop recommended criteria for water quality standards. By the federal criterion for water-borne pathogens, as long as E. coli derived from a single sample collection remains below 235 organisms per 100 milliliters, waters are considered safe to swim in. This number corresponds to a projected illness rate of eight swimmers out of a thousand. Vermont has adopted a stricter water quality standard for E. coli bacteria for Class B waters, based on a projected illness rate of four (instead of eight) swimmers out of a thousand. Corresponding to that different level of statistical probability, Vermont’s Class B standard is 77 E. coli organisms per 100mL in a single sample. This is the most stringent standard in the nation. Witten commented that the strict Vermont standard for E.coli may be revised to match the EPA standard because some studies have found that, even under moderate rainfall, waters running off undisturbed, forested watersheds may not meet the Vermont standard for E. coli.
Addison County River Watch’s provisional data from June 4 samples, said Witten, “showed especially high E. coli readings on Otter Creek below the falls in Vergennes, on the New Haven River just below where Muddy Brook runs into it, on Lewis Creek near the Starksboro/Monkton town line, the middle reaches of the Lemon Fair, on Little Otter Creek where it runs under Route 7 in Ferrisburgh, and on the lower Middlebury River near its confluence with Otter Creek.” These readings were all above 1,000 organisms per 100mL on June 4. Although the readings are certainly cause for concern, Witten commented that most of these locations have for years shown at least occasional signs of not complying with water quality standards.
“We have our eye on these stream reaches and the watersheds that feed into them,” said Witten. “No one intentionally pollutes the water. We as a society need to keep rooting out the land practices that lead to water quality problems, and offer both carrots and sticks to lead us all toward optimal stewardship. Clean water is the essence of life.”
For more information about water quality monitoring in Addison County rivers and streams, contact Matthew Witten at (802) 434-3236 at [email protected].

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