Pompy’ Becomes a Priority: Ompompanoosuc’s E. Coli Problem Gets Renewed Attention

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Article courtesy of Aimee Caruso | February 8, 2015 | Valley News | Shared as educational material

Volunteer efforts to combat a long-running water quality issue in the Ompompanoosuc River have ebbed and flowed over the years as time and funding were available.

But recently, residents have refocused their attention on the high E. coli levels found in the river, which rises in Vershire and flows south for about 25 miles through West Fairlee, Thetford and Norwich before reaching the Connecticut, bringing together local officials, nonprofits and the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, who have all been working to fight the problem.

The Army Corps of Engineers has recorded high E. coli levels at Sandy Beach, part of the Union Village Dam recreation area in Thetford, since at least 1993, but locating its source, or sources, in the 43-square-mile watershed area is an ongoing challenge.

Non-point source pollution — natural and man-made pollutants swept into waterways by rain and snowmelt — is at the root of all sorts of water-related problems, including E. coli outbreaks, siltation and algal blooms, notably in Lake Champlain. As the name suggests, pinpointing where such pollution is coming from can be daunting. E. coli, for instance, can come from beavers, ducks and geese; pets; manure and fertilizer; and failing septic systems.

It’s not like in the past, where pollution was coming out of a pipe from some sort of industry, said Jim Ryan, a watershed coordinator with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. Non-point source pollution “could be coming from anywhere in the watershed.”

The bacterium, generally not considered a danger itself, indicates the presence of fecal material from warm-blooded animals.

“The E. coli that causes foodborne illness is different than what we are testing for in water,” said Andy Chevrefils, environmental health risk coordinator with the Vermont Department of Health. “It’s used as a surrogate for other contamination, so if you are finding E. coli in the water, you can assume there are other contaminants likely to cause illness in the water.” Those pathogens, which may include bacteria, viruses and protozoa, can cause diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal cramps if ingested, Chevrefils said.

For that reason, Sandy Beach closes periodically during the summer, when E. coli levels are high.

A comprehensive study of water quality in the Ompompanoosuc River, sometimes called the East Branch, or the Pompy, in 2006 and 2007 helped narrow down the problem. (A tributary, the West Branch, which flows through Strafford, was determined to have relatively lower bacteria concentrations and was not included in that study.)

Conducted by conservation commissions in Thetford, West Fairlee and Norwich under the name Ompompanoosuc Watershed Council, it showed a stretch of the river where E. coli exceeded state water quality standards. Especially high concentrations were found in West Fairlee village and an area just upstream of the village, and levels were also elevated near where an unnamed tributary from Lake Fairlee runs into the Ompompanoosuc in Post Mills, with bacteria levels spiking after rainstorms. The roughly 11-mile section of the river between the Vershire-West Fairlee town line and the Army Corps of Engineers Beach area in Thetford was placed on Vermont’s impaired waters list. That triggered a review by the Environmental Protection Agency, which developed a “total maximum daily load” report for the river.

The report is “essentially a pollution allocation determining how much … pollution a waterway can absorb without being negatively impacted,” Ryan said. It also includes recommendations for mitigating the problem.

‘Delicate Issue’

A variety of organizations and volunteers have been working for years to improve water quality in the river. Public meetings and listserve postings have helped get the word out about challenges facing the river and how people can help. Organizers are doing door-to-door outreach with farmers about accepted agricultural practices, and mailings about riparian buffers have been sent to riverside property owners in the area.

Buffers, which have been installed in areas where some of the highest bacteria levels were found, can help with both pollution and erosion problems, said Ben Copans, a watershed coordinator with the Department of Environmental Conservation who formerly coordinated the Ompompanoosuc Watershed District. Grasses, plants and trees “can act as a filter, preventing some manure and pathogens from getting into the river.”

Without recent monitoring throughout the affected area, it’s not clear whether the same areas identified in the study are still the most troubled. But as ongoing monitoring by the Corps of Engineers has shown, the bacteria is continuing to come from somewhere.

Walks along the river haven’t revealed any obvious sources, but “windshield surveys” have helped identify potential problem areas, including cows that were not fenced out of a stream, horses that were overgrazing pastures, barnyards near waterways, and manure piles, as well as several septic systems near streams.

“It’s kind of a diffuse way of playing watershed detective,” said Ryan, who has been the state coordinator of the Ompompanoosuc Watershed District for almost two years.

Some failed septic systems have been fixed in the past few years, including three in West Fairlee, Ryan said. “There are probably more out there.”

And that possibility highlights what some participants feel is the trickiest part of the problem. Due to questions of etiquette, one of the now-defunct watershed council’s recommendations — a door-to-door survey of residents’ septic systems — has not been carried out.

“The septic system is the unsung hero of water quality,” said Li Shen, chairwoman of the Thetford Conservation Commission. But trying to pinpoint potential problems is “a very delicate issue.”

“Do you go around and make everyone test their septic systems?” Shen asked. “I don’t think there has been anyone available or appropriate to fill that role.”

Outreach and Education

Instead, outreach and education have taken priority.

On Thursday evening, about 50 people braved sub-freezing temperatures to take stock of previous work on the river and talk about what should happen next.

Right on time, it would seem.

“The state is starting to make forward movement on bringing the water quality up, so this seemed like a good time to do a public presentation,” said Peggy Willey, chairwoman of the West Fairlee Conservation Commission, which hopes to bring together residents and officials from West Fairlee, Thetford and Vershire to work on the issue. (See related story, page B1.) Willey, a massage therapist, sees the high bacteria levels as a galvanizing issue for people who love the river, especially those who border it and are interested in getting it cleaned up.

“Pain can sometimes be the thing that gets you where you need to go,” she said. “E. coli is an indicator, and it’s one that makes people say, ‘Oh wait, maybe there’s something we can do here.’ ”

The crowd at last week’s meeting included local farmers, conservation commissioners and planning and selectboard members, many of whom said they live in West Fairlee or Thetford.

During introductions, one woman, a mother of two, explained why she’d come. “I want my kids to be able to play in the river more.”

Doug Dresser, who recently placed a conservation easement on his riverside property in West Fairlee, also turned out for the 2 1/2-hour meeting.

In an interview last week, Dresser said the easement will protect 17 acres in the flood plain, creating a 50-foot buffer on both sides of the river. Several factors played into his decision to protect the land, which has been used for haying.

His health has been poor in the last five years, and selling the easement to the Upper Valley Land Trust will help financially, said Dresser, who also received some money from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department because the easement extends at least 35 feet. “I think it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Dresser became interested in the easement after taking part in the free “Trees for Streams” program through the White River Natural Resources Conservation District. Local students planted trees on his property along the river, and the project also involved West Fairlee Conservation Commission members and DEC representatives, he said. “It was quite a crowd. They all had a good time down there and they were really interested and really did a good job.”

‘Building Relationships’

Organizers hope more people will do what they can to help improve the health of the river. In addition to installing riparian buffers or conservation easements, that could also include tweaking farming setups and improving septic systems. Landowner willingness is a big factor, said Mary Childs, district manager with the conservation district.

“You need the landowner to be interested in making some sort of change,” Childs said. “It takes a little bit of time, building relationships.”

The greatest interest will likely come when residents talk with each other about the programs they’ve taken part in, Childs said, “if they had a positive experience and they are telling their neighbors.”

At the meeting, representatives of the land trust, the conservation district, the DEC and others outlined their programs and the help they can offer to farmers and landowners looking to get started.

During a discussion of septic system upgrades, Rich Wilson, of the state’s Drinking Water and Groundwater Protection Division, summed up the general spirit of the effort: When it comes to septic systems, Vermont will help homeowners find a “best fix” that takes finances into account, he said.

“You don’t have to worry about getting thrown out of your house. The state doesn’t do that.”

The goal is not to punish people whose septic systems are not in compliance with existing regulations, he said, but “to help bring you into compliance.”

Available incentives include grants and low-interest loans for septic system improvements.

Ryan Patch, an agricultural resource specialist with the Vermont Association of Conservation Districts, had shared similar sentiments earlier that evening.

The association, which is not a regulatory agency, can help farmers meet state standards and find money for upgrades, if they are eligible, he told the crowd. “I often tell farmers, ‘I’m the guy you want to have walk around your farm, because I can help you get it fixed.’ ”

The meeting came on the eve of the release of a five-year plan for an area known as basin 14, which includes the Ompompanoosuc watershed and several others.

“Most folks are concerned about the bacteria issue,” so that was the main focus of the meeting, said Ryan, who expects the report to be released in the next few months. But E. coli is just one of several challenges facing waterways in that area, including impairment from Ely Mine. The basin plan will address all sorts of water issues, including erosion and habitat protection and water quality.

“We’re really looking at non-point source pollution (problems) impacting those waters and trying to address them,” Ryan said.

Voluntary recommendations in the plan may include additional water quality monitoring “to narrow down even more where the problem is coming from,” he said, and a list of “potential partners,” who could help carry out various tasks.

Optimism was running high last week among town officials and others.

“I think this reboot will have some legs because it’s a broader coalition,” said Delsie Hoyt, chairwoman of the Thetford Conservation Commission. “The information of the study has not gone to waste. That’s been the impetus to get things rolling. Now, the partners are assembling.”

And Willey takes the long view.

“It’s a process of weaving and pulling things together, and all of the sudden, with enough things going on in an area, then you really have something,” she said. “Then, it also sets the town up for more things to happen.”

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