Pomperaug group to tackle bacteria in river

By Steve Bigham | Republican American

SOUTHBURY – The Pomperaug River Watershed received mostly high marks this week, but officials say there are areas along the river system that are considered “impaired” due to high e-coli bacteria levels.

And the culprits include increased land development, poor drainage, failed septic systems, geese and farms animals.

But it’s not the drinking water that residents have to be concerned with – the aquifers here run deep and the water is pure, officials said. The concern lies in the bacteria-filled water runoff that makes its way into rivers and streams, affecting swimming, boating and fishing.

On Wednesday, officials from the Pomperaug River Water Coalition laid out some of the issues facing the 90-square mile watershed along with recommendations to address the problem. It’s part of the group’s mission to provide information, hear from residents and then complete an improved water quality plan of action by late summer.

The Pomperaug River Watershed sits mainly in the towns of Bethlehem, Southbury and Woodbury, although it touches eight towns.

The Weekeepeemee River is part of the watershed and has been on the state’s impaired list since 2012. According to the environmental consulting firm of Fuss & O’Neill, much of the problem stems from runoff from agricultural areas and equestrian facilities. The firm – hired to assist in the planning update – is calling for improved manure management. It has suggested a variety of berms, buffers and other mechanisms to keep bacteria out of the groundwater. Some improvements are as simple as cleaning up better after livestock, but others are bigger projects.

Southbury First Selectman Jeffrey A. Manville said the costs to farmers to incorporate these measures are prohibitive.

“It can cost a farmer $175,000. There’s no way for a small farmer to afford this. I’ve done the numbers. It’s impossible for farmers. I’m a farmer. I would love to, but it’s impossible,” he said.

Susan Peterson of the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection said there are a number of grants and other funding aids farmers can use. But she understands the struggle.

“I realize it’s difficult, but we want to crack that nut somehow,” she said.

In more developed areas where more land is paved and covered with buildings and homes, storm water is unable to percolate into the ground where it can be naturally filtered. Instead, officials say, this “urban drainage” is making its way directly into streams or wetlands that lead to the Pomperaug River, then into Lake Zoar, the Housatonic River and eventually Long Island Sound.

“We’re trying to get the water to go directly into the ground where it can be filtered rather than directly into the pipe that leads to a stream,” explained scientist Stefan Bengtson of Fuss & O’Neill.

Low impact development solutions include permeable pavement, bio-retention safeguards, underground filtration systems and even a vegetative treatment system, which replicates natural water-treating wetlands.

Another source of contaminated water are geese whose droppings get into the brooks and streams of the watershed.

Officials also point to what they refer to as illicit connections such as pipes, ditches and other man-made structures that deliver sediments, bacteria and other material directly into the watershed.

Southbury resident Thad Burr voiced his concerns about not just water quality, but water quantity, or lack thereof. He reported that a number of wells have gone dry since the recent opening of CPV Towantic Energy Center power plant in Oxford.

PRWC Executive Director Len DeJong said that is not part of this report – nor is pesticide and herbicide pollutants – but that they are issues that are being tackled at the state level. Another threat to the watershed is the salt used on roads during the winter, Burr said.

The Transylvania Brook is also considered impaired as are some isolated spots along the Pomperaug River itself.

Officials plan to increase their monitoring of bacteria counts at 14 stream locations. These areas will be tested once a month from April to October.

The Pomperaug River Watershed encompasses all the land that drains into the Pomperaug River. The watershed plan – which is required by the DEEP and Environmental Protection Agency for funding eligibility- was last updated in 2006.

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