The Mad River is deeply important to all who live in The Valley. It is most known for its many swimming holes and it is the best place to cool off during a particularly hot summer, but how clean is the water?
Luckily one local organization has continually monitored the health of the Mad River and its surrounding watershed.
Friends of the Mad River is a nonprofit organization that has been monitoring the water quality in the Mad River watershed since 1985. Between 1985 and 2015 they have collected data from 57 sites and have recorded levels of E. coli, total phosphorus, turbidity, pH levels and water temperature. In 2016, they began recording total phosphorous.
In 1995, Friends of the Mad River and the Mad River Valley Planning District reached out to the public to find out why the Mad River was valued. They identified high-quality swimmable water, public access and healthy ecosystems as the most important aspects of the river to the community.
Since then the organization has worked to further public access to the many swimming holes and they have continuously collected data over the years to ensure that the water quality is safe.
Friends of the Mad River recently hired Doctor Fritz Gerhardt, a conservation scientist, to analyze their 30 years of data. He presented his findings at a public hearing August 18.
Gerhardt’s report states that the water quality in the Mad River and its tributaries is generally very good to excellent, but there are some areas of concern.
According to Gerhardt, High Bridge Brook is one area with a cause for concern. The brook runs from Common Road in Waitsfield along Brook Road and flows into the Mad River just downstream of the Waitsfield covered bridge.
E. coli, total phosphorous and turbidity levels are all concerning in that brook, according to the report. High Bridge Brook runs very close to unpaved roads and runs through a significant amount of agriculture, which could both be possible sources of contamination.
High Bridge Brook also has three tributaries, which are being tested this summer to find out if there is a more specific source.
High E. coli, which is most dangerous to recreational usage of the river, may be related to stormwater runoff from areas contaminated by manure, faulty septic systems and wastewater. At several of the downstream sites in Moretown, there is a “disturbing trend toward higher values [of E. coli] during the past 10 to 15 years.”
“Although it is hard to give a precise number without further analyses, the data suggest that E. coli counts have increased roughly 25 percent during the past 14 years,” Gerhardt said.
What Friends of the Mad River has collected over the past three decades is significant, said Gerhardt, noting that it must be one of the best river monitoring organizations in the country.
Gerhardt has suggested that Friends of the Mad River continue monitoring E. coli levels, especially in areas where recreational use is high, and that they start sampling total nitrogen, which would help locate possible sources of contamination.
Friends of the Mad River has since implemented four new testing sites, three on High Bridge Brook and one on Folsom Brook, which will help them pinpoint the source of contamination.
Also, starting in 2016, Friends of the Mad River started testing total nitrogen levels at all of their sites. According to Gerhardt, total nitrogen is a better source determinant.
The temperature of the Mad River increases from its tributaries to the mouth of the river and all measures are high, most likely because Friends of the Mad River tests in the river in the summer months.
Water temperature is an important factor for aquatic life. Gerhardt was most concerned about brook trout, which are sensitive to temperature increases in rivers and streams.
Friends of the Mad River also tests pH levels which measures the acidity or alkalinity of the water. All of the sites tested showed neutral pH levels along the main stem and tributaries of the river.
Friends of the Mad River works with individual landowners to fix contamination issues. When they are able to find the source of a specific contaminant, they advise a landowner to check their septic system or to look at where runoff is directed.
This presents an issue in Moretown because the high levels of E. coli are so widespread, the source could be located on many different properties, according to Corrie Miller, executive director of Friends of the Mad River.
The organization releases its data throughout the summer in The Valley Reporter and at some individual swimming holes.