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June 29, 2017

Elevated Scantic River bacteria levels puzzle scientists

Testing continues at the Scantic River this year as high bacteria levels — which led to the postponement last week of the annual cardboard boat and rubber duck races — remain a concern.

And, although the section of the river that runs through East Windsor was declared relatively clean and safe most weeks last summer, the Scantic River’s high levels of E. coli last week stand in sharp contrast with other Connecticut River tributaries and the Connecticut River itself.

Five out of six testing areas in East Windsor were deemed unsafe for swimming or boating, according to the most recent round of weekly testing done by University of St. Joseph professor Kirsten Martin.

Martin, who has published academic research on the Scantic River and conducts testing at various points of the river during summertime, also tested three parts of the Scantic River in Enfield and two in Somers. All five of those locations yielded the same results.

Martin’s testing is funded by East Windsor, Enfield, the Scantic River Watershed Association, and the American Heritage Rivers Commission. She indicated that E. coli levels might be higher so far this year because it has rained so often in recent weeks.

“(Rain) increases the chance of runoff from surrounding areas,” she said.

But according to a website maintained by a number of organizations, including the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and the Connecticut River Conservancy, Martin’s findings are an anomaly.

A map featured on the website, which includes test results submitted by Martin and others for dozens of points on the Connecticut River and its tributaries, shows that the Scantic River is the only area from Vermont to Connecticut with confirmed high levels of bacteria.

While many points of the Connecticut River and many of its tributaries do not have updated results, more than 50 locations in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut have recently been labeled as safe for boating or safe for both boating and swimming.

Derek Dube, also from the University of St. Joseph, has been working on a way to identify where the contamination is coming from, but he said he is currently unable to speculate on a potential source.

“At this point there is nothing conclusive that I can really say about a source, but we are initiating a project that will attempt to look at animal waste — agricultural and feral — as a potential source of bacteria in the river,” he said.

Answers could be a ways off, however, as Dube noted that his effort “requires quite a large undertaking,” and that “there are likely multiple factors at play in a situation like this."

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