Going out on the river? Beware of bacteria.

River Conservancy calls untreated sewage a concern even before COVID-19

As weather begins to warm and people head outside for fresh air and exercise while remaining physically distant, Connecticut River Conservancy (CRC) urges people to use caution when swimming, boating, or fishing in rivers.

In addition to dangers posed by rivers swollen from spring rain and snowmelt, E. coli bacteria and coronavirus exposure from untreated sewage in rivers threaten people engaging in recreation.

Luckily, the CRC said in a news release, “there's one easy thing to keep in mind that is an indicator of river cleanliness: the weather - specifically if it has rained recently.”

Typical wastewater treatments involving chlorine or ultraviolet (UV) light are effective means of killing E. coli bacteria and are expected to be highly effective in killing the coronavirus.

Therefore, CRC is primarily concerned about untreated sewage discharges into rivers, which has always been a concern, even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rain flushes all sorts of pollutants into rivers and can overwhelm aging stormwater infrastructure, causing sewage and polluted stormwater runoff to flow directly into our rivers.

“Many years of Connecticut River E. coli bacteria testing data tell us that it's a good idea to stay out of rivers for 24 to 48 hours after a heavy rain because bacteria levels could be high,” said CRC Executive Director Andrew Fisk.

The presence of bacteria is an indication that other germs that could make you sick - like coronavirus - may also be present.

“While COVID-19 is a new threat, our recommendation to avoid rivers after heavy rain remains the same,” said Fisk.

Research is still underway to determine if the coronavirus remains infectious in fresh water or after passing through wastewater treatment facilities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC), the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Water Research Foundation, scientists believe there is low likelihood of catching COVID-19 from treated or untreated sewage.

However, the CDC has noted that the SARS virus, another type of coronavirus, was detected in untreated sewage for 14 days.

River users are encouraged to visit the “Is It Clean?/¿Está limpio?” website at ctriver.org/isitclean to find bacteria test results - an indicator of overall river cleanliness - for nearly 200 river-access and -recreation sites in Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. The site is also available in Spanish at ctriver.org/estalimpio.

Water samples are collected from late-May through early-October. Current plans are for testing to resume as usual this year.

Each summer, CRC and more than 20 partner organizations deploy volunteers to collect water samples from popular boat launches and swimming holes. Samples are typically collected at each site weekly or bi-weekly, tested for E. Coli, and test results are posted online 24 hours later. Water sample results are color-coded and map-based so users can easily see where the river is clean.

Results are a snapshot of river conditions at the moment the sample was taken, but give river users information they can use to make informed decisions. The website provides bacteria data for the Connecticut River and more than 20 tributaries, including the Deerfield River in Massachusetts, the Saxtons River in Vermont, and the Ashuelot River in New Hampshire.

Bacteria test results for 2019 showed nearly all sites sampled by CRC had dry-weather average bacteria levels below the limits considered safe for swimming and boating.

“Thanks to decades of investments and public opinion committed to investing in clean water, our rivers are certainly much cleaner than they used to be,” notes Fisk.

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