E. coli levels high in Otter Creek and Lemon Fair rivers

Editor’s note: This story by Andrew Stein was first published in the Addison Independent.

Kathy Morse, Lemon Fair River coordinator for the Addison County Riverwatch Collaborative, holds up a water sample that will be sent to a state lab to test for E. coli. Photo by Andrea Warren for the Addison Independent
Kathy Morse, Lemon Fair River coordinator for the Addison County Riverwatch Collaborative, holds up a water sample that will be sent to a state lab to test for E. coli. Photo by Andrea Warren for the Addison Independent

ADDISON COUNTY — Between rays of early morning light last Wednesday, three volunteers for the Addison County Riverwatch Collaborative weaved through patches of poison parsnip along the Lemon Fair River. Middlebury College professor Kathy Morse, Cornwall’s David Anderson and Starksboro’s Matt Witten were taking samples and running various tests to monitor the Otter Creek tributary’s health.

Filling a key void in state and federal funding, the group records data on Addison County tributaries for government agencies to better understand why, for example, Otter Creek’s E. coli levels have been consistently high. In addition to E. coli counts, the volunteers record phosphorus levels, turbidity, water temperature, air temperature and total nitrogen.

Thanks to data compiled by Morse last month, public officials know that E. coli levels in the Lemon Fair River were 15 times greater than they were last year at this time and about 8.5 times higher than the state water safety threshold for swimming, which was previously the strictest in the nation.

Last Wednesday, the Lemon Fair crew took new measurements for the month of July. Anderson dipped a jug mounted on the end of a long pylon into the river, while Witten took various environmental measurements. Morse cracked open sample tubes, filled them using Anderson’s contraption and quickly stored them away.

“Once I break this seal,” she said, “we’ve got six hours to get the samples to the lab.”

With a comprehensive slate of samples to draw from four locations along the Lemon Fair, the group worked fast to get samples up to the University of Vermont’s Jeffords Center lab while they were still viable for testing.

Since the early ’90s, the volunteer group has monitored the environmental health of tributaries flowing into the Otter Creek. Today, the collaborative collects data on the Middlebury River, New Haven River, Lemon Fair River, Mud Creek, Little Otter Creek and Otter Creek.

“The state does a lot of monitoring,” said Witten. “But it relies on groups like the Riverwatch Collaborative because it doesn’t have enough stations to monitor these rivers on its own.”

Ethan Swift, an environmental analyst for the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) who oversees the collaborative’s efforts for the state, explained the important role that the volunteer group and others like it play in Vermont.

“It comes down to the fact that the state and some of our other partners are very limited in the resources we have to do comprehensive monitoring and assessment work,” said Swift. “To have partnerships with volunteer groups, like the collaborative, is crucial for getting a more accurate and complete picture of water quality conditions.”

By helping ANR and the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) identify problem areas, the collaborative’s data has been instrumental in helping many local farms obtain grants to curb their environmental impacts, said Craig Miner, who is director of the Addison County FSA and volunteers for the collaborative.

“We’ve been able to use that data to provide some documentation for a need for federal monies to help farmers put practices in place to help filter out runoff by establishing manure storages and barn improvement projects,” he said.

New standards for E. coli

Vermont has traditionally had the most stringent safety standards in the country.

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that states set a safety standard of 235 E. coli organisms per 100 milliliters of water, Vermont’s previous standard was 77 E. coli per 100 ml, which was the strictest standard in the nation. The EPA estimates that for every 1,000 people who swim in water at the recommended standard, six to eight will fall ill from E. coli. The highest standard that a state can adopt is 548 E. coli per 100 ml, which the EPA estimates would trigger illness in 14 swimmers out of 1,000.

On May 17, the Vermont Department of Health raised the state’s safety standard for swimming to 235 E. coli per 100 ml of water. A shift that State Toxicologist Sarah Vose said was insignificant.

“In the whole scheme of things they’re both very low,” she said. “This means that more beaches can be open. In years past, when a beach had a sample that was 100, we would have to close it, which means less recreation and less fun. But now it can be open if it’s 235.”

Swift said that the ANR is currently reevaluating its water quality standard. Vose acknowledged that the ANR standard is still set at 77 E. coli organisms.

By this standard, Otter Creek is considered “bacteria impaired” from the confluence of the Middlebury River to the mouth of the Otter Creek, where it pours into Lake Champlain. This label means that this stretch of Otter Creek consistently fails to meet Vermont water safety standards, said Swift, who just finished a management plan for the watershed.

In June of this year, both the Otter Creek and the Lemon Fair River showed sizable increases in E. coli levels from last year’s tests. In June of 2011, Lemon Fair samples showed an average of 127.4 E. coli per 100 ml of water. That number grew to 1,986 E. coli this year. Otter Creek E. coli counts also jumped up from last June, growing from 31.84 to 248.9 this June.

Swift said that these numbers vary throughout the season depending on weather conditions, water conditions and local land uses, and some river sections, like the stretch of Lewis Creek that passes under Route 7 in Ferrisburgh, showed decreased levels of E. coli this year.

Nonetheless, samples drawn from many state watersheds are showing increased E. coli levels this year. But Swift and his colleagues at ANR aren’t certain what’s behind the Lemon Fair’s drastically elevated E. coli counts and other bacteria upticks across the state.

“We are not sure why … but we are seeing this in other surface waters around the state, possibly as a result of (Tropical Storm) Irene,” he said.

And despite the fact that the Lemon Fair has the highest E. coli counts in Addison County this year, it’s not labeled as bacteria impaired.

“Part of our challenge and part of the reason we haven’t listed the Lemon Fair as being impaired for E. coli is that a lot of wildlife have access to the stream,” said Swift. “We know that there’s an incredible amount of beaver activity in that watershed and a large amount of migratory water fowl that stop there … so there also may be high levels (of E. coli) due to natural causes.

“It’s just too difficult to pinpoint and say this is coming from agriculture … We say that there’s a fair amount of evidence to suggest it is impaired, but not enough.”

Reporter Andrew Stein is at andrews@addisonindependent.com.

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  • Bruce Lierman

    Thanks for the “muckraking”.
    So let me get this straight;at the new standard, “… six to eight will fall ill from E. coli.’ and the State Toxicologist’s response is “This means that more beaches can be open. So six to eight more people per thousand can get sick? And we don’t care what the cause is because it might be from “natural causes”? I feel pretty confident that the source of E coli is a “natural cause; the question is, could we mitigate it? Do we want to encourage people to swim in it? Do we accept the cost of treating the additional people who will get sick?

  • Bruce Lierman

    [please post in place of the previously submitted comment]
    Thanks for the “muckraking”.
    So let me get this straight; at the new standard, “… six to eight (per thousand) will fall ill from E. coli.” And the State Toxicologist’s response is “This means that more beaches can be open”? So six to eight more people per thousand can get sick? And we don’t care what the cause is because it might be from “natural causes”? I feel pretty confident that the source of E coli is a “natural” cause; the question is, could we mitigate it? Do we want to encourage people to swim in it? Do we accept the cost of treating the additional people who will get sick?

    • Karl Riemer

      Translated into plain English: no, under the new standard (the standard standard) probably few if any more people will become ill compared to under the old standard. To the best of anybody’s knowledge, either provides a substantial defense against infection; neither is perfect. Nothing is risk-free, including swimming in chlorinated pools or breathing air, so the goal is a threshold below which healthy people generally remain healthy without resorting to hazmat sequestration. That’s an imprecise and somewhat arbitrary target but part of the definition is rapidly diminishing returns. In other words, below a properly chosen threshold the incidence of infection as a function of exposure changes much less than it does above that threshold, so lower thresholds gain little.
      Also worth noting is that E. coli is only a marker species indicating sources and conditions conducive to similar prevalences of similar bacteria. An E. coli level, besides being a compound statistic, is only a rough guide to what else is in there. Not only are those numbers not linearly significant, they aren’t specifically significant. They are less integers than approximate neighborhood boundaries.

  • Dear Bruce,

    According to Neil Kamman, the ANR official tasked with monitoring state waters, the state E. coli standard of 77 E. coli organisms per 100 ml of water was adopted in the 1990’s by mistake. ANR officials at that time applied a linear metric to the standard when the science was not linear.

    The standard is an indicator of the potential presence of harmful pathogens. Kamman said that it’s impossible to discriminate an illness rate caused by such pathogens at an E. Coli level below 235 E. Coli organisms.

    ANR is in the process of changing its standard of 77 E. coli organisms to match the Department of Health’s, and Kamman pointed to numerous Vermont safety standards that will change this next year. I’ll have more on this issue in the next week.


  • Steve Merrill

    Great, Now our rivers run with liquid manure runoff from the mega-dairies and we UP the e-coli limits? We are clinically insane, and all this for a product that causes heart disease, juvenile obesity and diabetes and resistance to antibiotics. In today’s BFP obit section a 26 yr. old died from post-op infections and this will become the new normal as we use over 22 million lbs. of antibiotics in animal feed. At least these guys are testing, our MRBA will NOT test for e-coli and North Country Hospital will NOT test any samples from me from the Mississquoi and Mud Creek, the 2nd most “impaired” brook in the state.Mind Boggling, SM

  • Jim Christiansen

    Since driving to the river is many times more dangerous than the elevated level of E. coli in the water, perhaps we should just shut down all swimming in Vermont right now. Governor, save your people.

  • Tim Hogeboom

    Incredible! More beaches open means more fun? For whom? I’m guessing that statement wouldn’t apply to those suffering from gastrointestinal illness picked up while swimming. And now the Health Department, charged with safeguarding public health, has decided to expose swimmers to more disease causing bacteria, protozoa, and viruses?

    Make no mistake about it, this is a step backwards for a state that prides itself on being clean and environmentally forward looking. A reputation, by the way, that is largely unearned when it comes to water quality.

    I worked for ANR for 16 years as a Microbiologist testing surface waters for E. coli. Allow me to say that E. coli is indeed an indicator organism, which means it indicates the possible presence of pathogens. These pathogens can include whole galaxies of microorganisms that cause disease, from swimmer’s gastroenteritis to cholera, dysentary, typhoid, and hepatitis.

    Frankly, I would not allow my children to swim in water with an E. coli count of 235.

    Look, Vermont’s waterways are sick. And it ain’t the beavers, folks (what a laugh!). They’re sick in large part because we have failed to curtail the flood of manure that enters our streams every time it rains. We’ve failed to stop spreading manure onto flood plains, where it easily and regularly finds its way into the main channel. We’ve failed to keep stock out of the brooks.

    Having the ANR follow suit and relax its E. coli standard along with the Health Department is leadership in the wrong direction. The kind of leadership Vermont needs is to not only protect Vermont swimmers from disease, but also to get to the root of a problem which has plagued the state for generations.

    It’s past time to ask our state leaders to commit to a new direction, towards cleaner rivers, streams, and lakes. It’s past time to provide farmers with the funding they need to keep manure out of Vermont’s waterways. I think we should insist on clean Ag and provide farmers with the resources they need to be sure that the water that leaves the farm is just as clean as when it arrived.

  • Steve Merrill

    As the cows get sicker the farmers can just add more formaldehyde to the hoof-baths to prevent strawberry-hoof warts, then when they “apply” the liquid crap to the fields it can be ignited by sparks, then we can ignite the rivers too and get a nice, clean, burn-off that will kill the e-coli. Funny how when there were 15,000 farms spreading dry manure there were no algae blooms, but now we are down to 1,000 farms spreading liquid and the rivers and lake are a sewer? Maybe Leahy will get more millions for the IJC “hearings” (they don’t listen) so we can “study” the problem some more, yay! SM, North Troy.

  • James Maroney

    October 8, 2011

    David Mears, Commissioner
    Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation
    103 South Main Street, 1 South Building
    Waterbury, Vermont 05671-0401

    Dear David:

    Tuesday’s TMDL meeting was well organized and I believe everyone had ample opportunity to express his or her views. I would like to take this opportunity to encapsulate mine.

    We all know that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If the state would rid Lake Champlain of agricultural pollution, which is the 900 lb gorilla in the room, it is essential to keep the adage foremost in mind.

    The Clean Water Act (1972) states quite clearly that discharging pollutants into the nation’s navigable waters is to be “reduced” by 1983 and “eliminated” by 1985. Vermont’s Accepted Agricultural Practices (AAPs) rule, upon which the state’s efforts toward compliance with CWA was quite lately predicated, says just as clearly that the intention of the rule is “not to eliminate but to reduce” pollution due to agriculture. The CWA divided pollution into two classes, point sources, defined as those emanating from smoke stacks, pipes and conveyances and non-point sources, including farms. But the inclusion of farms into the latter class is rebuttable: farmers directly discharge pollutants into diffuse surface waters through wheeled manure and fertilizer spreaders, which are certainly “conveyances.” It is simply impossible for VAAF&M to permit farmers to apply 46k tons/year (92,000,000 lbs!) of artificial fertilizer and millions and millions of gallons of manure onto river bottomland and then assert that Vermont is doing everything possible to “reduce pollution due to agriculture from entering the lake.”

    I suspect that in drafting the AAPs the VAAF&M did not consider that the application of artificial, petroleum-based fertilizers and herbicides to annual row crops grown in the flood plain is both unnecessary and counterproductive; or that manure from 140,000 cows applied by the millions of gallons to river bottom land cannot but go eventually into the lake or even that there is an upper limit to the number of cows that can be housed in the Lake Champlain watershed without adversely affecting water quality. A judicial review of the agency’s rulemaking might disclose administrative procedures that were both ”arbitrary and capricious” or otherwise not in compliance with the law.

    It is almost forty years beyond time for Vermont to acknowledge that Nutrient Management Plans and voluntary guidelines for farmers are wholly ineffective; that Vermont’s Accepted Agricultural Practices presume the necessity and utility of artificial petroleum-based fertilizers and herbicides; that the major contributor to lake pollution is not “excess” fertilizers and manure from “poorly managed” conventional dairy farms but the conventional dairy farming paradigm itself; that Vermont cannot come into compliance with CWA without rewriting Vermont’s AAPs to prevent the transportation, sale and application of all artificial petroleum-based fertilizers and herbicides not just to lawns but to farms, golf courses and roadways. It is time to limit the housing of more than one cow for every two acres of cropland upon which that cow’s manure is spread and her feed is grown.

    Vermont has a long history of farming and protecting and promoting farming is an important aspect of our culture deserving of strong policies. Indeed, Vermont is widely known for its dairy farms, which the public assumes are “green.” The public knows too that Vermont dairy farms are in trouble but cannot reconcile the contradiction.

    Historically, the state has adopted a wide range of programs to “help” farmers all of which are intended to lower costs and/or boost or maintain production: cost sharing, low interest loans, tax abatements or exemptions and outright cash payments. Vermont has also compensated farmers to take land out of production for set backs along streams and rivers, believing that such regulations would lower production and were therefore takings deserving compensation under the Fifth Amendment.

    But it is settled law that regulations that do not deprive property owners of all commercial use of their land are not takings requiring compensation. On the contrary, regulations that reduce milk production would raise, not lower, the value of Vermont farmland and Vermont farm products. Empirically, Vermont’s farm subsidy programs have not helped dairy farmers who have dwindled from 11,500 in 1940 to 980 today, an attrition rate of 93%.

    A popular aphorism suggests that when you subsidize something you get more of it; in this case, “it” is not farming, which we want more of, but milk, which we do not. Farmers have converted subsidies to new capacity with which to produce more milk. But over production is the dairy farmers’ first and most powerful enemy. The national supply is 9-12B lbs in surplus and growing. The classic law of supply and demand tells us that surplus production drives low milk prices, which is what drives our small and medium-sized farmers—the ones tourists come to see—out of business. To combat low prices, progressive farmers do the only thing available to them: consolidate, take on more debt with which to expand capacity and make more milk. Vermont’s legislators are encouraging this trend perhaps without realizing that confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are the logical end result of subsidies that encourage milk production. CAFOs are the business model for producing the most milk most efficiently and the business model is predicated upon over production, low prices, farm attrition and lake pollution. It works: the paradigm cannot be invoked without inviting these results and in fact the markets are awash in milk that has no value.

    Vermont farmers currently house 140,000 cows a growing percentage of which are in large conventional CAFOs. It is time to ask if Vermont can continue to regard conventional dairy farming as a reasonable and beneficial use of the state’s ground water or if the paradigm and its unavoidable consequences does not constitute an abrogation of the state’s duty to guard the public trust. But I would go further: conventional dairy farming cannot be construed as reasonable or beneficial to anyone in Vermont. We do not need the milk (Vermont farmers make about 2.6B lbs/year, which is 1.3% of the national supply. If all of Vermont’s remaining dairy farmers were to go suddenly out of business, our stores would still be stocked with cheap milk made at a loss by farmers in other states and shipped here for sale); Vermont farmers continue to fail at the rate of 5-8%/year, they lose millions for themselves, their industry, their suppliers and for the state’s current account, they pay few if any taxes increasing the burden for essential services—schools, hospitals, roads—upon productive taxpayers; and they pollute the lake.

    Vermont desperately needs a way to help its farmers but help cannot be accomplished through policies that encourage or help farmers maintain conventional milk production (including cost sharing for manure digesters). Conventional milk is a fungible commodity: all conventional milk whether made in Vermont, Pennsylvania, California, Maine or Wisconsin is identical and it returns to the majority of Vermont’s farmers, 80% of whom milk 60 cows or fewer, less than it costs to make. Incontrovertibly, before Vermont farmers can prosper, they must make a product to which consumers assign a higher value than the fungible commodity. Milk made without polluting the lake with artificial petroleum-based fertilizers and herbicides is just such a product and the market for it is expanding. Prescriptive regulations against the application of artificial fertilizers and herbicides, defended by conventional farmers and their coops as necessary to their livelihood, is instead the only policy that will reduce supply and help Vermont dairy farmers become profitable without polluting the lake.

    In sum, Vermont cannot redraft its TMDL to meet its obligations under CWA by ignoring or attempting to assuage the major contribution made by conventional dairy. Vermont has at hand the rare opportunity to cure two, pressing, social ills, at little or no cost, with the same medicine. I entreat you to be courageous in its prescription.

    Sincerely yours,

    James H. Maroney, Jr., Vermont Law School ‘12

  • Tim Hogeboom

    One thing that is often overlooked in discussions about water quality in Vermont is the potential for economic growth stemming from rivers and lakes that are clean. Economic growth, I might add, that is currently not possible in Vermont since we treat our waterways like open sewers.

    Last year, I spent a few days in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, a town that straddles both banks of the San Juan River. Instead of turning its back on the river (which is fed in places by hot springs), the river is the centerpiece of life there. Sitting on a deck of a bustling restaurant overlooking the water, you can watch people tubing, rafting, swimming, fishing, lolling in hot springs, and walking along the recreation path that runs along the shore. Not just a handful of tourists, but hundreds of people enjoying everything a clean river has to offer. The river is a destination, a resource that feeds the economic life of the town. The restaurants and motels and shops are full of activity because of all the people who have come to recreate in and around the water.

    Meanwhile, in Montpelier, Vermont, the Winooski River carries its heavy load of disease-causing bacteria, phosphorus, viruses, nitrogen, and pathogenic protozoa downstream. You can sit on the deck of a restaurant overlooking the water, but it’s filthy water you’re looking at and there’s nobody swimming or boating. Yes, you could say that it’s too dangerous because of the low dam and the danger of drowning but even without that there would be no activity to speak of. E. coli counts in the Winooski River are generally well above 235 bacteria per 100 milliliters, so it is unswimmable by any measure and I for one would never want to eat a fish caught in water that disgusting.

    All across Vermont, there are rivers in the same condition, and streams and lakes too. Mostly because we have best agricultural practices that are VOLUNTARY rather than mandatory. It’s not a scientific problem we face, but rather a political problem.

    We can do better.

    We can say to our state leaders that we want clean waterways because we are missing out on the economic growth that clean waterways make possible. Give farmers the resources and assistance they need to keep manure out of Vermont’s waterways. And make compliance mandatory.