Volunteers help track any contamination of Connecticut River
Once one of the more polluted waterways in the nation, the Connecticut River has come a long way from its tainted past when few people were on it to boat, much less swim or fish.
“Just 40 or 50 years ago, people that used to row on this river would get a tetanus shot as a preventative step before getting out on the water,” said Andrew Fisk, executive director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council based in Greenfield.
Today, the river is healthier than it has been in years, thanks to state and federal legislation that regulates the discharge of pollutants and sets water quality standards, as well as the organizations such as the watershed council which monitor its cleanliness.
River contamination can be caused by the runoff of melting snow and rainwater as it flows over roads, bridges, parking lots, rooftops, lawns and agricultural areas where it picks up a variety of contaminants. These include pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, antifreeze, engine oil, heavy metals and sediment, which are then deposited into the river.
However, according to the watershed council, the most significant contaminant that directly affects the health of swimmers and boaters is the presence of bacteria — specifically, Escherichia coli which is popularly known as E. coli.
E. coli can cause severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting. Though most healthy adults recover from an E. coli infection within a week, young children and older adults can develop a life-threatening form of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome.
Although recreation on the Connecticut River is now much safer, enthusiasts are still cautioned to be aware of the ebb and flow of bacterial contamination.
Every week from Memorial Day until Oct. 1, volunteers take samples from designated monitoring locations on the river. Samples are then sent to the watershed council’s water testing laboratory in Greenfield.
Volunteer Phil Crafts of Leverett has been collecting water samples for four years near the Coolidge Bridge and the Oxbow in Northampton.
“I collect the samples, record some notations on weather and temperature, and put the samples on ice to be delivered to the laboratory,” Crafts said.
The Greenfield lab tests solely for the presence of E. coli because it is also a reliable indicator of the presence of other harmful bacteria.
The watershed council together with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, provides weekly updates on the current levels of E. coli found along the river. The results are posted online at www.connecticutriver.us along with a map of the sites with color-coded markers indicating the levels of water quality. Blue shows that the site is safe for swimming and boating, yellow means it is suitable for boating only, and red warns that the water is not safe for boating or swimming.
“The areas around Northampton and north tend to be more consistently blue, but south of Northampton it’s a different story,” Fisk said. “Last year, one out of four samples turn up yellow or red.”
Andrea Donlon, river steward with the watershed council, said volunteers collect samples every Thursday and the results are posted on Fridays. “We do it this way so people can be informed as they plan their weekend activities,” she added.
Source of bacterial pollution
While modern sewer systems have separate transport pipelines — one for sewage and another for stormwater runoff — older ones known as combined sewer overflow systems carry both sewage and runoff in one pipe. When heavy rains inundate these systems, they empty both runoff and raw sewage into the river, causing significant spikes in bacteria levels.
Weekly testing not only informs the public considering recreation on the river, it also helps in tracing the source of contamination, uncovering leaks in pipes and faulty sewage systems.
Donlon said that a riverfront site in Springfield once occupied by a boat company continually came up with unexpectedly high test results. After the planning commission contacted the city in 2009, an investigation was launched which revealed that, contrary to popular belief, the building’s sewage system was not connected to the city’s system but was instead traveling through pipes under the parking lot and into the river. The problem was eventually fixed and the building is now a rowing facility called the Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club.
“In 2000, nine towns discharged 1.7 billion gallons of untreated sewage and rainwater from 149 pipes,” Fisk said. “Today, we have eliminated 1 billion gallons of untreated sewage and rainwater runoff.”
According to Fisk, Agawam, Ludlow, Palmer, South Hadley and West Springfield have eliminated all of their combined sewer overflow systems, while Springfield, Chicopee and Holyoke continue to rely on the outdated systems.
“We have eliminated 99 of 163 sewage fallouts in the region. Roughly $350 million was spent to fix part of the problem, and it will take at least that much and probably much more to fix the rest,” Fisk said.
Until then, while weekly testing provides a snapshot of bacterial levels at one point in time, experts say the information is an important tool that helps people to make informed decisions about using the river for recreation.
The best rule of thumb is to avoid swimming in the river for 24 to 48 hours after a significant rainfall in order to avoid any contaminants that may have been deposited, according to Donlon.
How people can help
While many of the solutions to the problem are expensive, large-scale remedies that fall to communities and conservation agencies, Fisk said there is one very simple step that people can take that would have a very significant impact on the health of the river.
“Picking up after their dogs,” Fisk exclaimed emphatically. “Pet refuse is a big problem and can send the numbers skyrocketing and make you very sick.”
Unlike the droppings of wildlife, which are fewer and spread out over large areas, the waste of domestic dogs is numerous and concentrated, washing into the river with stormwater runoff.
Fisk said research has shown that almost 20 percent of fecal contamination in rivers has been traced to domestic dogs. Pet waste contains fecal coliform bacteria, viruses and parasites that can threaten human health.