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Greene: Swimming Holes

As I drive along the beautiful West River on Rte 30 in Dummerston, I pass hundreds of parked cars, both local and out-of-state. Swimmers amble down to the river carrying picnic baskets, inner-tubes and towels, enjoying a bucolic upcountry experience. The one thing I don’t see along the river are sanitary facilities of any sort, and that’s worrisome.

Tourist sites all over the Internet direct people to what were once quiet stretches of river, so these swimming holes are hardly secrets anymore. And those numbers may constitute a real strain on resources. Where does everyone go when they have to …well, go?

Regular testing of local rivers by the Water Quality Monitoring Program of the Southeastern VT Watershed Alliance indicates the real problems come after heavy rains. In a storm, everything on land gets washed into the river: pet waste, septic overflow, and even sewer system issues can play a part.

The eight test sites along the West River rarely register E. Coli levels above the 235 colonies per 100 ml of water considered the safe limit. But Marie Caduto, Watershed Coodinator of Vermont’s Watershed Management Division, still advises people not to swim until 48 hours after a heavy storm.

Bacterially speaking, she says, urine is pretty innocuous. It’s solid waste that carries the pathogens and bacteria.

Most tests are conducted mid-week. It takes 24 hours to culture a bacteria test and release the results by Friday so people can be informed of water conditions. But that doesn’t necessarily indicate how healthy the water is over the weekend, during heavy use.

Fantasies of unspoiled river idylls are powerful. American classics from Huckleberry Finn to A River Runs Through It can woo us into thinking that we live in a less crowded - or complicated - time. Reasonable precautions, like being aware of water test results online for specific areas and bodies of water - and not swimming right after a storm - can go a long way toward keeping both swimmers and rivers healthy.

There’s a beautiful little waterfall along Rte 30 where I often see people filling bottles with water to drink. But I’ve had friends get really sick after drinking water from open streams contaminated by an animal dying upriver. So one day I stopped to warn a man that it might not be all that clean. The man told me - big surprise - to mind my own business.

The Latin word Potator means one who drinks. So to the man at the waterfall, I say, Caveat Potator.

Stephanie Greene is a free-lance writer now living with her husband and sons on the family farm in Windham County.
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