E. coli at two Williams River spots 10 times above acceptable level

Frank Kelley with a collection bottle and an air/water thermometer./Photos by Shawn Cunningham.

By Shawn Cunningham and Cynthia Prairie

E. coli levels at two spots in the Williams River in and near Chester were 10 times higher than acceptable levels for swimming, according to samples taken at those sites Wednesday morning, June 27. Those spots are below the Waste Water Treatment Plant and at the Bartonsville Bridge.

“The elevated values may have been related to the significant rainfall that ended about 36 hours before our sampling took place,” when 1.5 inches of rain was recorded in Rockingham, wrote Laurie Callahan of the Southeastern Vermont Watershed Alliance, in a statement accompanying the figures on Friday, June 29. The alliance concerns itself with the health of southern Vermont’s waterways as they pertain to recreation and ecological-environmental concerns.  Twenty-two sites are on its monitoring list; 19 of them were tested on June 27. For the complete list, click here.

Only one of the six Williams River sites tested was acceptable for swimming, according to state standards. That standard is 235 E. coli organisms per 100 milliliters — about 3.4 ounces — of water. The June 27 levels at the two spots was 2,420 per 100 milliliters, up from June 13 figures of 1,047 at the Bartonsville Bridge and 1,554 taken at the Waste Water Treatment Facility.

Callahan added that the 2,420 figures is “the highest I have personally seen. That number is the upper limit of the test method capability. The actual number of E. coli was higher than that, but we won’t ever know how much higher.”

Figures for the third spot tested ended up far below its June 13 numbers: Missing Link Road Bridge had been 1,987, but the June 27 numbers dropped to 249 and 299, still higher than the 235 E. coli organisms per 100 milliliters of water.

Three other sites were tested on June 27 that could not be tested two weeks earlier because of high water.  Those sites are the Rainbow Rock swimming hole (329 E. coli organisms per 100 milliliters of water); at the Middle Branch of the Williams just above the confluence with the Williams (518 E. coli per 100); and the Williams River above the confluence with the Middle Branch of the Williams River (215 E. coli per 100).

E. coli is a bacteria found in the fecal matter of warm-blooded animals. An infection of E. coli usually starts two to five days after exposure. It can include cramps and abdominal pain followed by diarrhea. Nausea is common as are headaches. Fever and chills do occur but are less common.

For those wishing to swim at areas found to have higher than acceptable levels of E. coli, Callahan recommended “waiting 24 to 48 hours after a significant rainfall.” Fishing, she added, “would probably fall under the category of boating,” with its “clean enough or suitable for boating” standard of 235 to 575 E. coli per 100 milliliters of water.

Three of the June 27 tests were taken by Frank Kelley and Tom Hildreth, Chester volunteers for the Southeastern Vermont Watershed Alliance, which began monitoring water quality 10 years ago as the West River Watershed Alliance.

An early morning dip to test a water’s health

About an hour after sunrise on that overcast June 27 and just one cup of coffee into the day, Hildreth pulled on his boots and joked with Kelley as they prepared to go into the Williams River to collect followup water samples for the alliance.

Tom Hildreth uses his own “flick method” to achieve the right amount of water — 100 milliliters — in a water sample from the Williams River.

Kelley said that there are several indicators that quantify the health of a stream. Among the chemical indicators that the Alliance tests for are pH (acidity/alkalinity), conductance (because pollutants affect the ability of water to conduct electricity), turbidity (clarity or murkiness), phosphorus and nitrates as well as E. coli (bacteria). Biological indicators include the presence of leeches (poorer quality water) and trout (good quality water.) Other tests look at the level of dissolved oxygen and temperature.

Armed with sealed, sterile bottles, thermometers and recording forms, Kelley and Hildreth took turns – one wading into the stream to collect a 100-milliliter sample and take the air and water temperatures, the other taking down the readings and making notes about the site.

Flooding from Tropical Storm Irene changed the course or the depth of the channels of so many Vermont waterways – including the Williams River – that many of the regular SeVWA collection sites are not what they used to be Kelley and Hildreth had to choose new sites that are similar to those that they usually test, taking into account the depth and speed of the water and being sure to sample far enough downstream from a convergence of two streams to ensure that they have blended.

E. coli winds up in the river as a result of runoff that is contaminated by animal feces. Hildreth and Kelley figure that the rains of June 12th accounted for the higher levels observed on the 13th.

Speaking about the difficulty of gathering water samples after Tropical Storm Irene, Hildreth said that they attempt to get samples from the same spots wherever possible but that the “channels have all changed.” He added that the objective was to “try to monitor near swim holes.”





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  1. Karen Morris says:

    Many thanks to Tom Hildreth and Frank Kelley for monitoring our waters!

  2. Melody Reed says:

    Best to stick with the town pool! 🙂