BRATTLEBORO -- Water quality specialists are requesting swimmers, boaters and kayakers remain out of county rivers and streams for safety reasons for at least a week following Tropical Storm Irene.
David Deen, river steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council for Vermont and New Hampshire, told the Reformer on Wednesday that it is hazardous to pursue any recreational activities on the heels of Irene because of the enormous amount of materials that have entered local waterways.
"The river moved a lot of stuff during this high water. It moved toxins, pathogens, large objects (most of which were flowing) but some of which was beneath the surface, so I'm advising people to stay off the river with boats, canoes and kayaks until the water clears," Deen said.
The Connecticut and West rivers remain a murky brown -- discolored by blown-out banks, sediment from their foundations that causes the unprotected soil to erode faster, washed out roads and other household debris. Navigation around the newly shaped river is unsafe because of potentially lodged debris near the shores and along the bottom.
Local fish populations have experienced a typical setback, but are expected to recover in the upcoming weeks.
Fisheries biologist Ken Cox with the Springfield office of the Agency of Natural Resource's Fish and Wildlife Department has visited multiple rivers in southern Vermont. He identified everything from wood to sediment disturbing the natural habitat of aquatic species and making the bodies of water unsafe for recreational activities.
"There's so much debris in the streams, so much material has been flushed out, including trash. We saw bottles and containers of oil," Cox said. "I'm not in the health department, but I guess I would be very cautious in engaging with any contact recreationally with the water for a while until things settle down."
Laurie Callahan, a coordinator with the Southeastern Vermont Watershed Alliance, anticipates a decent amount of agricultural runoff has also entered the rivers and brooks around Windham County.
"Manure from cows, horses and sheep or anything else, there was a tremendous amount of runoff in all the areas of our watersheds in southeastern Vermont," she said. "That's besides the mud in the water and the soil, where there's bacteria and chemicals and all sort of nasty stuff there."
The alliance has taken samples of surrounding lakes, rivers and streams every two weeks to monitor the E. coli levels in the water. Wednesday was a scheduled sampling day, but volunteers were unable to access many of the locations and have planned one final testing on Sept. 14.
Callahan expects the E. coli levels to rise after Irene. Many varieties of Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria are harmless, but several strains can cause severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting.
"With the additional runoff, the E. coli levels probably are pretty high since there is quite an additional value of water," Callahan said. "E. coli could come from those sources, like agricultural runoff from farms ... E. coli also tends to attach to soil particles, of which there are many more in the water now than there typically are."
While murky waters are not uncommon during massive thunderstorms and other weather-related events, the overall damage from Irene is unprecedented.
"I think what makes this particularly catastrophic is that, geographically, it's taken place over such a large area, almost statewide," Cox said. "When you have something like this which occurs over the state, it's particularly noteworthy."
Chris Garofolo can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311 ext. 275.