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Laurie Callahan writes down her data after collecting water samples from the Whetstone Brook in Brattleboro.


How’s the water?

Volunteers from the Southern Vermont Watershed Alliance test water quality at local swimming holes

BRATTLEBORO—Early one Wednesday morning, Laurie Callahan parked in the southeast corner of the lot of the C.F. Church building on Flat Street in Brattleboro.

At about 7 a.m., she walked down a narrow path toward to the shores of the Whetstone Brook. Other than the high-pitched call of distant delivery trucks’ beeping backup signals, the only sound interrupting the brook babbling was birds chirping.

Along the way, Callahan picked up beer cans and collected them in a dirty, discarded plastic grocery bag she found nearby. Although trash removal is not part of her official duties, she does it anyway.

“Some of the grossest things [I find] are diapers,” Callahan said, adding, “you don’t expect people to leave those."

This is the first of three locations where Callahan and “about 25” volunteers with the Southeastern Vermont Watershed Alliance (SeVWA) test the waters of the Whetstone six times throughout the summer, every two weeks, from mid-June to the end of August.

The testers also collect water in 24 other spots on the West, Williams, Saxtons, and Rock rivers, and along the North Branch and Sacketts brooks. Many are popular swimming holes and recreation spots, she said.

The volunteers collect water samples in little containers, destined for labs where levels of things like E. coli, phosphorus, and nitrates are tested.

Carrying a clipboard, Callahan continued toward the water.

Protected by her rubber Wellies, she waded a few inches deep into the gently moving stream, and dipped in a metal-encased thermometer. Its temperature was within a few degrees of the air’s.

“This is the lowest point that’s sampled on the Whetstone,” Callahan said, as she began submerging a series of small containers into the water and securely capping their contents.

“It’s the site with the highest E. Coli values,” she said.

She explained the “runoff landscape” along the seven-mile path the Whetstone takes from its headwaters, 1,500 feet above sea level at Marlboro’s Hidden Lake, down 1,250 feet in elevation to its terminus at the Connecticut River.

“Animal poop” and “old faulty sewer lines” were a few elements Callahan attributed to the Whetstone being “more susceptible to issues” than other streams.

On the sheet secured to the clipboard, Callahan recorded the water level of the brook. Rain, floods, a dam released upstream —€• all are considerations a water tester must note when recording conditions at a testing site.

After collecting the water in their discrete containers, Callahan packed the samples in a cooler with ice packs. Thus began the race against the clock.

E. coli “has a more critical timeframe,” she said, noting the water being tested for the bacteria needs to get to the lab within six hours. E. coli levels are tested at the Connecticut River Watershed Council headquarters’ lab in Greenfield, Mass., Callahan explained.

Although that is less than a half-hour from Brattleboro, samples from other sites need to be collected first.

The Greenfield drive is the easy part, she said. Nutrient parameters such as nitrates are tested in a lab in Burlington, requiring a drive there and back every other week. SeVWA partners with the Ottauquechee River Group and the Black River Action Team. Callahan said the three organizations share an intern who provides transportation for all of their samples.

Callahan formerly held the position of SeVWA’s Water Quality Monitoring Program coordinator. She stepped down last year, although she still volunteers as a tester. She has worked with the alliance since 2010, and brought with her a background in limnology, the study of inland waters.

This year, Ryan O’Donnell took over Callahan’s former position as coordinator.

He praised the volunteers who collect water samples every other week.

“Most volunteers are people who live near the river,” O’Donnell said, noting “some have science backgrounds,” but that is not necessary, because “we train."

“Some are fishers, paddlers,” or they just “like the river."

This year’s new testing site was initiated by a volunteer, O’Donnell said. A member of the Putney Rowing Club offered to test Sacketts Brook, just above the Interstate 91 bridge, from his boat.

SeVWA has signed up volunteers in the past simply by sending testers to swimming holes. O’Donnell said people see the testers collecting water samples and ask, “What’s going on?”

And some of them want to participate.

“Curious bystanders learn” about things like water quality, he said.

The Connecticut River Watershed Council explained the benefits of monitoring and understanding water quality in a recent press release.

“’When weather gets warm, people head to our rivers to cool off and have fun, and they want to know if our rivers are clean. The data tells us that it is a good idea to stay out of the water for 24-48 hours after a heavy rain because bacteria levels could be high,” said CRWC River Steward Andrea Donlon, who coordinates the water sampling program. “Heavy rain is often the cause of high bacteria levels. Bacteria can spike after a storm due to combined sewer overflows and polluted stormwater runoff from urban, suburban, and agricultural areas.”

While cities and towns along the Connecticut River are making significant investments in their sewer systems to reduce pollution, CRWC Executive Director Andrew Fisk said “there are still times when your rivers might make you sick. Our rivers are certainly much cleaner than they used to be, but it makes sense for river users to pay attention to this information to help them manage risk.“

The results of the testing appear in a number of public places, including This list also includes the results of SeVWA’s water monitoring.

Locally, lists the results in its “Nature” section.

In addition, “we post the Whetstone Brook and West River charts at the Brattleboro Area Farmers’ Market bulletin board so people can see them at the Saturday market,” Callahan said.

SeVWA started monitoring the area’s waterways in 2003. All monitoring is performed by volunteers, and “sometimes the coordinator gets paid through grants” and other forms of funding, Callahan said.

Created with the help of the Windham Regional Commission (WRC), O’Donnell said “they determined it was needed” because some sites were identified as run-off concerns and others were popular swimming holes. He said now, some other sites are tested to possibly identify “problem areas.”

The “problem areas” O’Donnell mentioned as “impaired for bacteria” are near the bottom of the Whetstone, in a 2 {1/2} mile stretch from the mouth of the brook, where it empties into the Connecticut River, continuing upstream to Living Memorial Park.

One misconception O’Donnell wants to set straight is the water quality in the West River. “People assume it’s really gross because a lot of people swim in it, but most of the time it’s not,” he said.

Although the water testers are not directly performing advocacy work, O’Donnell said their efforts eventually lead to changes in how governments and other entities manage our waterways.

“We want to increase advocacy,” he said, noting SeVWA works “closely with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources in selecting sites, and the state gets our data to use to determine impaired areas."

“I’m glad I work in a state” that allows and supports citizen science, O’Donnell said, comparing Vermont to, for example, Wyoming, which effectively banned citizens from collecting scientific data. Under WY SF0012, passed on March 10, 2015, a person who “enters onto open land for the purpose of collecting resource data,” without permission can face up to a year in prison.

Vermont “is very supportive of this environmental monitoring and gathering data,” O’Donnell said.

Of the area’s swimming holes and water recreation sites, O’Donnell said, “If we weren’t testing it, who would be?”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #315 (Wednesday, July 22, 2015). This story appeared on page A4.

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