Warren Falls. VR file

The Mad River is generally safe for swimming and boating, according to local river advocacy group Friends of the Mad River (FMR).

“The federal Clean Water Act, septic regulations, lots of money, careful land stewardship and the hard work of many people are to thank. But, there are times – particularly after a rainfall event – when it is possible that the river might make people sick. Also, certain regions of the Mad River suffer from persistent water quality problems that contribute to poor aquatic wildlife habitat, harmful algal blooms, polluted groundwater and exacerbated flooding. Our community has work still to do,” said Corrie Miller, executive director of Friends of the Mad River.

Friends of the Mad River has run the Mad River Watch water quality monitoring program for the last three decades to get a sense of the watershed’s overall health, provide public health information to river users and identify areas needing improvement. Throughout the summer, community volunteers collect samples of water from dozens of river and tributary sites and then FMR and Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) laboratories analyze the samples’ bacteria and nutrient levels. They post the data in The Valley Reporter, on their Facebook page and websites and on signs at swim holes across The Valley so that people have information to make their own recreational health decisions. Over the decades, they’ve also used this data to guide many successful cleanup efforts.

“This past year, thanks to a generous private donation and a grant from Vermont’s Departments of Fish and Wildlife and Environmental Conservation, FMR engaged a research scientist to analyze our historical data, identify persistent water quality problems and make recommendations for the program moving forward. Stay tuned later this summer for occasions when we’ll share lessons learned from the historical data and actions we can all take for clean and clear water,” Miller said.

“We’ve designed a 2016 Mad River Watch program that will provide swimmers, paddlers and anglers with information they need for safe recreation while also gathering water quality data that better identifies and resolves problematic land uses. The big picture change is that we’re beginning to gradually transition the program’s focus from monitoring water quality equally across the watershed to targeting problem areas in order to guide solutions,” she added.

E. coli is a type of coliform bacteria and is an indicator of pollution from human or animal waste (cows, horses, dogs and septic leaks) and the potential presence of disease-causing organisms. The utility of E. coli analysis is somewhat limited to understanding risks to human health so FMR has refocused their analyses for E. coli at the dozen sites most used by people – the swim holes and access areas.

Folsom and High Bridge brook drainages are among those with persistently high E. coli levels. They have added sites to these areas to further pinpoint sources of water quality problems. To gain a more holistic understanding of water quality issues across the watershed, they are also adding total nitrogen analysis to the mix. Since 2006, they’ve collected samples to be analyzed for phosphorus and turbidity at the DEC’s lab. Indicators like phosphorus and nitrogen (nutrients that exist naturally but can wreak havoc in unnaturally high concentrations) and turbidity (a measure of the sediment suspended in the water that can indicate erosion and runoff issues) help paint a picture of watershed health beyond the capacity of E. coli analysis. Phosphorus, nitrogen and turbidity results will be available at summer’s end.

Understanding a river’s health means understanding the watershed. A watershed is the entire region of land that drains into a river, defined by the high points and ridgelines. Because a watershed carries water "shed" from the land after rain falls and snow melts, the quality of the river’s water is a measure of how well humans steward the land. If landowners and land managers limit pollutants and erosion and employ practices that slow down rain and snow melt – allowing water time and space to soak into the ground – then runoff doesn’t move so quickly over the land and into the streams and we pass fewer pollutant, sediment and flood problems to our downstream neighbors.

In the case of the northward-flowing Mad River, the 144-square-mile watershed drains the area of land between the Green Mountain ridgeline on the west, the Granville Gap to the south and the Northfield Range on the east. The Mad River watershed entirely encompasses three towns – Warren, Fayston and Waitsfield – as well as substantial portions of two others – Duxbury and Moretown.

“The five-town watershed is also part of the Winooski and Lake Champlain watersheds – the water draining from mountains and valley eventually enters those bodies of water on its way to the ocean,” Miller noted.

Sampling results from the first round of Friends of the Mad River’s samples show no sites with unfavorable swimming conditions as of Monday morning, June 13. It rained intermittently for several days prior to Monday’s sampling and sediments and pollutants from the land into the river and streams had likely already flushed through the watershed.

The flow condition of the Mad River at the time of sampling Monday morning was high and rising (HR), measuring approximately 300 cubic feet per second (cfs) at the USGS flow gage in Moretown. The flow peaked at 376 cfs in Monday’s afternoon hours. The median flow for this date is 195 cfs.

“Rain can cause E. coli levels to fluctuate, even on a daily basis, as water carrying pathogens moves down the watershed. FMR’s E. coli sampling results are only a snapshot in time intended to give people a sense of the conditions that lead to high pathogen levels in the water so you can be informed. You are your best protector – use common sense and don't swim for several days after a rain. It is estimated that at the level of 235 colonies E.coli per 100 mL water, approximately eight out of every 1,000 swimmers are likely to contract a waterborne illness related to fecal contamination,” Miller said.

This week’s Mad River Watch volunteers included Charlie Baldwin, Richard Czaplinski, Susy Deane, Annie and Hazel Macmillan, Kinny Perot, Fran and Gary Plewak and Michael Ware. Susanne and George Schaefer drove water samples to the lab in Burlington for phosphorus, nitrogen and turbidity analysis and Sally Boudreau posted data at swim holes across the watershed. This week Maryellen Kinhan, last year’s lab coordinator and a Warren resident, trained Paula Baldwin, a former Mad River Watch volunteer from Fayston, to fill her shoes.

For more information about E. coli and the Mad River Watch program and to view the most recent data report visit the Friends of the Mad River website at www.FriendsoftheMadRiver.org.