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Water Watchers: Weekly bacteria tests pinpoint trouble zones on Connecticut River

  • Phil Crafts volunteers with the Connecticut River Watershed Council to test the water quality of the Connecticut River. He uses a sterile jar to collect a water sample at the Oxbow boat ramp in Easthampton on June 27, 2013. The sample will be tested at a lab in Greenfield for E. coli. "I just want people to know how important this river is and how important it is to keep it healthy," says Crafts.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    Phil Crafts volunteers with the Connecticut River Watershed Council to test the water quality of the Connecticut River. He uses a sterile jar to collect a water sample at the Oxbow boat ramp in Easthampton on June 27, 2013. The sample will be tested at a lab in Greenfield for E. coli. "I just want people to know how important this river is and how important it is to keep it healthy," says Crafts.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Phil Crafts volunteers with the Connecticut River Watershed Council to test the water quality of the Connecticut River. He uses a sterile jar to collect a water sample at the Oxbow boat ramp in Easthampton on June 27, 2013. The sample will be tested at a lab in Greenfield for E. coli. "I just want people to know how important this river is and how important it is to keep it healthy," says Crafts.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    Phil Crafts volunteers with the Connecticut River Watershed Council to test the water quality of the Connecticut River. He uses a sterile jar to collect a water sample at the Oxbow boat ramp in Easthampton on June 27, 2013. The sample will be tested at a lab in Greenfield for E. coli. "I just want people to know how important this river is and how important it is to keep it healthy," says Crafts.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Phil Crafts volunteers with the Connecticut River Watershed Council to test the water quality of the Connecticut River. He checks the time he collected a sample from the Oxbow boat dock in Easthampton on June 27, 2013. The sample will be tested at a lab in Greenfield for E. coli. "I just want people to know how important this river is and how important it is to keep it healthy," says Crafts.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    Phil Crafts volunteers with the Connecticut River Watershed Council to test the water quality of the Connecticut River. He checks the time he collected a sample from the Oxbow boat dock in Easthampton on June 27, 2013. The sample will be tested at a lab in Greenfield for E. coli. "I just want people to know how important this river is and how important it is to keep it healthy," says Crafts.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Phil Crafts volunteers with the Connecticut River Watershed Council to test the water quality of the Connecticut River. He takes a morning water temperature reading for his data before taking a water sample at the Oxbow boat ramp in Easthampton on June 27, 2013. The sample will be tested at a lab in Greenfield for E. coli.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    Phil Crafts volunteers with the Connecticut River Watershed Council to test the water quality of the Connecticut River. He takes a morning water temperature reading for his data before taking a water sample at the Oxbow boat ramp in Easthampton on June 27, 2013. The sample will be tested at a lab in Greenfield for E. coli.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Phil Crafts volunteers with the Connecticut River Watershed Council to test the water quality of the Connecticut River. As he leaves he fills out paper work about the sample and places it in a cooler. The bacteria reading will be inaccurate if left out. The sample will be tested at a lab in Greenfield for E. coli. "I just want people to know how important this river is and how important it is to keep it healthy," says Crafts.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    Phil Crafts volunteers with the Connecticut River Watershed Council to test the water quality of the Connecticut River. As he leaves he fills out paper work about the sample and places it in a cooler. The bacteria reading will be inaccurate if left out. The sample will be tested at a lab in Greenfield for E. coli. "I just want people to know how important this river is and how important it is to keep it healthy," says Crafts.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Phil Crafts volunteers with the Connecticut River Watershed Council to test the water quality of the Connecticut River. He uses a sterile jar to collect a water sample at the Oxbow boat ramp in Easthampton on June 27, 2013. The sample will be tested at a lab in Greenfield for E. coli. "I just want people to know how important this river is and how important it is to keep it healthy," says Crafts.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Phil Crafts volunteers with the Connecticut River Watershed Council to test the water quality of the Connecticut River. He uses a sterile jar to collect a water sample at the Oxbow boat ramp in Easthampton on June 27, 2013. The sample will be tested at a lab in Greenfield for E. coli. "I just want people to know how important this river is and how important it is to keep it healthy," says Crafts.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Phil Crafts volunteers with the Connecticut River Watershed Council to test the water quality of the Connecticut River. He checks the time he collected a sample from the Oxbow boat dock in Easthampton on June 27, 2013. The sample will be tested at a lab in Greenfield for E. coli. "I just want people to know how important this river is and how important it is to keep it healthy," says Crafts.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Phil Crafts volunteers with the Connecticut River Watershed Council to test the water quality of the Connecticut River. He takes a morning water temperature reading for his data before taking a water sample at the Oxbow boat ramp in Easthampton on June 27, 2013. The sample will be tested at a lab in Greenfield for E. coli.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Phil Crafts volunteers with the Connecticut River Watershed Council to test the water quality of the Connecticut River. As he leaves he fills out paper work about the sample and places it in a cooler. The bacteria reading will be inaccurate if left out. The sample will be tested at a lab in Greenfield for E. coli. "I just want people to know how important this river is and how important it is to keep it healthy," says Crafts.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

Sprong is rowing director for the Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club at North Riverfront Park in Springfield. Earlier that morning, she and her youth rowing class had crossed paths with a volunteer for the Connecticut River Watershed Council and Pioneer Valley Planning Commission’s joint program to monitor Connecticut River water quality. The kids saw firsthand how volunteers test the river for E. coli bacteria.

As recreational fishers, boaters and swimmers flock to the river this summer, the council and commission are partnering with 10 local organizations to monitor river water quality in more than 100 places along the Connecticut and get this vital health information to the public — fast. During the peak recreation season between Memorial Day and Labor Day, results are posted every Friday on the project website, connecticutriver.us.

Speaking from the river in a phone interview punctuated by instructions to her rowers, Sprong said her club regularly uses the program’s data to inform members whether the river is safe for boating and swimming. “We feel confident to send people into the river because of the testing,” she said.

River’s threats

Contamination threats to the Connecticut River come from a variety of sources. When it rains, water courses through farms, lawns, parking lots, roads and pipes, picking up contaminants along the way. Metals, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, personal care products and other pollutants are all carried into the river.

Though their production was banned in 1979, toxic man-made chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are still found in Connecticut River fish — as is mercury. Some of that mercury enters the river as an airborne pollutant emitted by power plants outside the region.

But the biggest issue for Connecticut River water quality is bacteria, said Andrea Donlon, river steward for Massachusetts with the watershed council.

Combined sewer overflow systems, or CSOs, are the major culprit. In this outdated sewer design, the same pipe system is used to manage both domestic sewage and storm drainage. When rain overloads the system, it is designed to overflow directly into the river — raw sewage and all. More than 60 CSOs are still in use in Holyoke, Chicopee and Springfield.

That’s why the Connecticut River Bacteria Monitoring Project, now in its sixth year, was created by the regional planning commission.

“We know that the river is heavily used for recreation,” said Anne Capra, a principal planner with the commission. “And we also know that we have CSOs on our river.”

Public swimming beaches are required to test their waters weekly and post results, Donlon explained in a phone interview. But people also swim at boat launches and other unofficial access points on the Connecticut where monitoring is not required.

“We used to get calls from members of the public wondering if it’s safe to swim in the river,” Donlon said. “We really didn’t have a good answer for them because no one was testing the river regularly.”

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection monitors rivers across the state. But MassDEP’s five-year rotating cycle doesn’t provide enough immediate information to give recreational users a good sense of whether the river is safe, Donlon said.

Now, anyone can check the monitoring program’s website to learn whether specific sites are safe for swimming and boating. Users can search for water quality data by state, city, water body (such as the Mill River in Northampton), or specific monitoring site.

The page for each site shows a map and photograph of its location and gives general information about the site. Recent E. coli test results are color-coded based on the EPA’s water quality standards for recreational use: blue means the site was suitable for swimming and boating, yellow means it was suitable for boating only and red means it was not suitable for boating or swimming.

The website also notes whether there was a wet weather event — more than a tenth of an inch of rain — in the 48 hours before each sample was taken. Wet weather events increase the chance of high bacteria concentrations in the water. Capra said people involved with the monitoring project have noticed elevated bacteria levels up and down the river associated with this season’s storms.

To get the data, trained volunteers sample water from assigned monitoring sites each Thursday morning. The watershed council’s lab in Greenfield tests the samples for E. coli, and the results are posted within 24 hours on the project’s website. The EPA recommends E. coli as an indicator organism for gauging whether there is fecal matter in the site’s water that could carry disease-causing pathogens.

Capra said that since bacteria levels can change by the day, each week’s results refer only to the Thursday morning on which the samples were taken.

Phil Crafts, a retired Amherst Regional High School biology teacher who lives in Leverett, is volunteering with the project for his second year. He samples water at the Oxbow in Easthampton. Crafts described the sampling process in a phone interview and lauded the project’s experimental design.

“It’s big-league science — all the details are being watched,” he said.

The monitoring project is “like sticking a thermometer in a patient’s mouth,” Crafts said, in that it provides concrete data on the health of the river.

So what’s the diagnosis? “The primary message is that we continue to see elevated E. coli levels during wet weather events,” Capra said. The program’s website recommends staying out of the water for 24 to 48 hours after heavy rainfall to avoid contracting a waterborne disease.

But during dry weather, levels are low enough that it’s safe, Capra said. “The big news about that is that 10 years ago that wasn’t true,” she said.

“People who have lived around here for a long time say that you didn’t even want to go near the Connecticut River,” Donlon said. “And now it’s this wonderful place to go to, and it’s much cleaner.”

Improvements began with the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. The federal law channeled money into local projects to improve water quality, including wastewater treatment plants along the Connecticut that are still in operation today. In addition, 99 combined sewer overflows, or half the river’s CSO burden, have been eliminated with the help of federal funding.

The Connecticut River is designated a Class B water body, meaning it should be safe for recreational fishing and swimming. According to reports from the Environmental Protection Agency, much of the river in Massachusetts meets federal standards for these so-called “primary contact recreation” activities that involve immersion in the water.

But waters between the Holyoke Dam and the Connecticut state line do not. “That’s the part that still needs to be worked on,” Donlon said.

And that’s mostly because of CSOs. Stormwater runoff itself is also a problem, estimated to contribute roughly a quarter of the bacteria found in Connecticut River waters. But CSOs “are the primary reason the Connecticut River continues to fail to meet federal fishable-swimmable water quality standards for bacteria,” Capra wrote in an email.

Solving the CSO problem often requires building a whole new pipe system to separate sewage from stormwater. Satellite treatment plants may also be built to treat runoff with chlorine on its way to the river. The planning commission estimates that fixing Holyoke, Chicopee and Springfield’s remaining CSOs will cost those communities more than $340 million.

Early warning

In the meantime, the bacteria monitoring project is helping cities identify problem areas that might otherwise go unnoticed. When a site’s readings are repeatedly elevated, the Connecticut River Watershed Council and Pioneer Valley Planning Commission work with municipalities to pinpoint the source of contamination, such as a failing septic system or a cross connection between domestic and storm sewer lines. Cities can then work with property owners to address the problem.

“Our view is that when you have a healthy river you have also a healthy economy, and also a place where people want to live,” Donlon said. “So many cities have burgeoning development along rivers, once they clean up the river.”

Ultimately, “it’s a quality of life issue for us living in the Valley,” she said.

“The Connecticut River is really our keystone natural resource,” Capra said, so “it makes sense that it should be as clean as it can possibly be.”

“This is the lifeblood of where we live,” said Crafts, the retired biology teacher. “If people would take care of their watershed, that would go a long way to taking care of the environment. … I’m moved by the necessity of awareness on the part of citizens.”

Related

High Connecticut River dampens boating season

Monday, July 15, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — High waters on the Connecticut River have marred this year’s boating season, forcing boat owners and marina workers to haul in vessels up and down the river due to bad conditions. “There’s not one boat in the water,” said Chris Jernigan, service manager at Brunelle’s Marina in South Hadley. “It’s a one-weekend season so far. It’s been a … 0

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