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 [email protected]

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10 Comments on "E. coli levels high in Otter Creek and Lemon Fair rivers"


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Bruce Lierman
4 years 6 months ago
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… Read more »
Bruce Lierman
4 years 6 months ago
[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… Read more »
Karl Riemer
4 years 6 months ago
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… Read more »
4 years 6 months ago
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… Read more »
Steve Merrill
4 years 6 months ago
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… Read more »
Jim Christiansen
4 years 6 months ago

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
4 years 6 months ago
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… Read more »
Steve Merrill
4 years 6 months ago
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… Read more »
James Maroney
4 years 5 months ago
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)… Read more »
Tim Hogeboom
4 years 5 months ago
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… Read more »
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