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What's in your water?

Volunteers who monitor local swimming holes find few contaminants in rivers

TOWNSHEND—A summer day at your favorite swimming hole is a Vermont tradition, but with the fun comes the worry that spending a day in the water is a swim-at-your-own-risk proposition.

If you’re among those who might be concerned about water quality at the swimming hole, you can take comfort in knowing there are people looking out for you.

The Southeastern Vermont Watershed Alliance (SEVWA) is a volunteer, self-funded group that monitors 24 swimming sites on the West, Williams, and Saxtons Rivers and along the Whetstone Brook.

The alliance has been testing the water since 2002, although some years have seen abbreviated activity.

According to Rebecca Salem, who for years served as director of SEVWA and now assists ecologist Laurie Callahan, the coordinator of the project, the collecting and testing work was paid for this year by about $8,000 in donations and town grants.

State funding has dried up, said Salem, although the state pays for some pollutant testing.

Salem said that towns affected by alliance work contribute 25 cents per resident to SEVWA’s annual budget.

The latest monitoring work began in late June and will continue every two weeks into September. Principal testing is for Escherichia coli (E. coli), a species of fecal coliform bacteria found in feces from humans and other warm-blooded animals.

E. coli bacteria, “a standard pollutant of the surface,” does not cause infection, according to Neil Kamman, manager of monitoring assessment and planning for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.

However, he said, E. coli levels are used as indicators of fecal matter in the water. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency uses E. coli levels to gauge health risk from water contact in recreational waters.

High concentrations “increase the likelihood of exposure to [other] potentially pathogenic organisms,” which cause infections, Kamman said.

“If the concentration is high, the information is posted at swimming areas,” he added, explaining that high concentrations are normally generated by runoff after heavy rains and are very common after a high-water event.

Hazards to swimmers include gastrointestinal issues, ear infections and skin problems, according to Marie Caduto, watershed coordinator for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. 

“I work with all the watersheds in southeastern Vermont, writing and implementing water quality plans,”  she said, adding that the state “depends heavily on volunteers. It is really key to what we do.”

She also said that, for the most part, the water quality is good. 

“There are a couple of locations where there have been problems, one in the West River in South Londonderry and one in the Whetstone Brook in downtown Brattleboro. The state has hired a consultant for very detailed monitoring of storm water coming into the brook.  Where is it coming from?”

Kamman said that the SEVWA volunteers “do an excellent job and take on a consequential piece of monitoring, and we support a good chunk of what they do, such as providing lab services.”

Kamman said that the main pollutant is actually sediment “because it coats the bottom of streams,” along with nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen.

“These are not as consequential in southeastern Vermont as they are in other parts of the state, such as the Missisquoi River Basin.”

The Missisquoi is a tributary of Lake Champlain. Water runoff from farms and other environmental factors pollutes the water in that river, which ultimately contributes to the lake’s water problems.

Salem explained that SEVWA volunteers collect testing samples for three pollutants other than E. coli, noting that agricultural runoff, leaking septic tanks, and pet feces are common sources of pollution.

There are testing sites on the Williams River, a 27-mile-long tributary of the Connecticut River that rises in Andover and flows eastward through Ludlow and into Chester. There, it turns south and flows through Rockingham into the Connecticut. Its watershed covers 117 square miles.

Also on the testing list is the Saxtons River, a 22.9-mile-long tributary of the Connecticut.

The Saxtons rises in the town of Windham and continues on through Grafton and the Rockingham village of Saxtons River, continuing on to Westminster before joining the Connecticut. Its watershed covers 78 square miles.

The West River, a 53.8-mile-long tributary of the Connecticut, includes a watershed of about 58.8 square miles. It rises in the town of Mt. Holly and flows southward through Windsor County into Windham County, where it runs through or along Weston, Londonderry, Jamaica, Townshend, Brookline, Newfane, and Dummerston. In Brattleboro, it flows into the Connecticut.

The West River collects the Rock River in Newfane. Because of the river’s popular swimming hole sites, there is talk of SEVWA taking on the testing of that 12.9 tributary of the West River.

The Whetstone is a seven-mile-long brook that rises in Marlboro, cascades down along Route 9, and empties into the Connecticut in Brattleboro.

Salem said that there are periodic “pollution hot spots” on all the rivers.

“We bracket those,” she said, “and then repeatedly test above and below those spots.”

For more information about SEVWA, contact sevwa.vt@gmail.com, and for more information about the volunteer water quality monitoring program, contact Laurie Callahan at sevwa.volunteer@gmail.com.

Further information is also available from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Vermont Department of Health.

Those interested will find the names of the state’s town health officers, who also are involved in local water quality, at healthvermont.gov.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #110 (Wednesday, July 20, 2011).

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