Regional water sampling hopes to identify Conn. River pollutants


BRATTLEBORO -- Summer testing of river water in Windham County has been conducted for a number of years by the Southeastern Vermont Watershed Alliance. Such testing has been done by volunteers concerned about the dangers to health of swimming in rivers and swimming holes that are being heavily utilized by people in the hot summer months.

But on Aug. 6, volunteers from SeVWA and other organizations in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts took samples from the Connecticut River's tributaries, samples that will be tested for nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous.

"We have never done this before," said Andrea Donlon, river coordinator for the Massachusetts chapter of the Connecticut River Watershed Council, and coordinator of Samplepalooza. "It went very well. It's nice to get a combination of state folks and volunteers working together. We might do it again."

The sampling effort was coordinated by the Connecticut River Watershed Council, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and the EPA.

In addition to nitrogen and phosphorous, the water will be tested for chloride, and other water quality parameters to help determine the amount and impact of these pollutants.

Samplepalooza 2014 is meant to collect data to support a multi-state effort working to reduce nitrogen pollution in Long Island Sound. Nitrogen from the Connecticut River and other rivers entering the Sound has been determined to be the cause of a "dead zone" documented by researchers in the Long Island Sound. Excess nitrogen causes large amounts of algae to grow. As the algae dies, it depletes the water of dissolved oxygen that is critical for aquatic wildlife.

The sampling strategy is to test a large number of locations on the same day, ideally a day with no rain in any portion of the three states. This allows for more accurate comparisons to be made between samples while minimizing differences in weather and river flow variation -- issues that usually complicate such studies.

The project is designed to identify areas of the watershed that provide the largest sources of nutrients and, in the future, will allow for more accurate targeting of efforts to reduce nutrient impacts. Sampling locations were selected on the main stem of the Connecticut River, the downstream sections of its major tributaries, around suspected nutrient sources, and in reference locations on more pristine streams.

"A lot of people upstream of Connecticut don't think too much about being part of Long Island Sound," said Donlon. "They have no connection to that body of water, though water quality in their own backyard is something they care about. It's good to remind people that what we do right here actually affects people far away."

Ted Walsh, the surface water monitoring coordinator for NHDES, Watershed Management Bureau, was on the Mascoma River in Lebanon, N.H., on Aug. 6. He said in New Hampshire, he also had samples drawn from the Cold River in Walpole and the Ashuelot in Hinsdale.

"There have been a lot of sampling efforts but this effort will help the larger scale of work going on in Long Island Sound," said Walsh. "It will help us look at how to direct restoration dollars and do some mapping to pinpoint major sources."

Much of the sampling was done from bridges that were the last ones before the tributaries fed into the Connecticut River, he said.

"Those are convenient locations to sample from. You just lower a bucket."

Samples were taken from more than 50 sites in the three states. All of the samples were sent to Vermont's testing facilities, said Walsh, though New Hampshire took six duplicate samples to compare the results in testing. It could take two to three weeks to get the results back, said Walsh.

Nitrogen and phosphorous are in run-off from multiple sources, he said, including community parks, golf course, farms and wastewater facilities. Homeowners also contribute to nutrients in the waterways when they fertilize their lawns, he said.

"What happens in Brattleboro or Claremont (N.H.) can ultimately contribute to what's happening in Long Island Sound," said Walsh.

But it's not just about protecting Long Island Sound, said Walsh.

"These nutrients can affect our streams. If you have excessive amounts you have excessive plant and algae growth."

Then when the plants and algae die off, that affects the water's oxygen level, which affects aquatic life.

While New Hampshire relied on DES staff and interns to conduct the sampling, many of the people who drew water in Vermont were volunteers.

"We got our volunteers through our network of contacts," said Donlon. "And we also got a lot of new folks who never sampled before but seemed game to do it."

Six times a year, volunteers from SeVWA test 22 spots in southeast Vermont for E. coli.

"I began with SeVWA because I had concerns about the heavy volume of use on the Rock River and how clean it was," said Cris White, who lives in Newfane. "We are downstream of most of the swimming holes and I had expressed my concerns and ended up being a volunteer about three years ago."

But on Aug. 6, White was asked to take samples from the Whetstone Brook and the West River.

Kelly Stettner, and her son, 8-year-old Armando, of Springfield, participated in the sampling.

Stettner, with Black River Action Team, does monthly testing of the water in her neck of the woods.

"Usually, it's our 15-year-old daughter who helps with all my monthly sampling, but she's at Conservation Camp up in Woodbury this week. So Armando grumbled his way out of bed and into a BRAT tee shirt to help me at 6:30 a.m. When I gathered up the rope lasso-style and tossed the bucket over the bridge, he said ‘Well, that's an early-morning splat.' And as we were pouring the water from the bucket into the various sample bottles, he said, ‘This is so cool, mom. I'm glad you woke me up."

Bob Audette can be reached at, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.


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