Essex Parks and Recreation is looking to improve its water testing practices after news of high levels of E. Coli at Indian Brook Reservoir took five days to reach the public.
Recreation staff tested Indian Brook waters on Friday, July 26 as part of their bi-weekly regimen, sending samples to the Vermont Department of Health’s lab in Colchester.
The lab tested the samples that Saturday, but it typically takes two lab workers to certify the results, forcing the lab to wait until Monday to send off the results. And because the town receives results through the mail, it took two more days to reach at the rec department’s mailbox.
Meantime, Indian Brook Reservoir remained open with no notice to the public of the potentially dangerous bacterium.
Essex rec director Ally Vile said she notified the public of the test results on July 31 after her department finally received the results. EPR then sent off another round of testing the following day that showed the E. Coli levels were back to normal.
In a post-mortem of the process, Vile learned that the town can sign up for email notifications, which she said hasn’t been a normal practice. “For some reason, we just were never on that list,” she said. She has also changed the system on her end, instructing staff to take water samples earlier in the week to avoid any weekend delays.
Vile estimated positive tests for E. Coli occur about once a year and said it’s difficult to identify the source of random spikes once sewage leaks are ruled out, noting that the town doesn’t chemically treat the water to prevent the bacterium. She guessed either waste from wildlife or dogs caused the spike.
The Vermont Department of Health Laboratory says bodies of water with less than 235 E. coli organisms per 100 ml is suitable for swimming. Three samples taken from different areas of the reservoir on July 26 all showed readings higher than 290 E. coli organisms, with the highest reading showing 345.
Mary Celotti, director of the Colchester lab, acknowledged the importance of quickly alerting the public when recreational waters are not safe for swimming and said her lab is working to better advertise the availability of emailed results.
Celotti explained that the lab hasn’t advertised the email service to avoid confusion: The lab only offers to email results for recreational bodies of water, not drinking water samples, and while many rec departments have already been signed up for the notices after asking to receive results digitally, the health department hasn’t proactively asked users to sign up.
All of the lab’s customers will soon have that option thanks to a new data management system, which lab is currently in the process of transitioning into and expects up and running around March 2020, Celotti said. But until the system is in place, Celotti said the lab plans to better advertise the email service for recreation users like EPR.
Both Celotti and Vile said their departments are always looking for ways to do things more efficiently.
And while Vile stressed the reality of working with outside agencies means the town will always need to keep its expectations “a little bit flexible,” she believed the recent changes will make a positive impact.
“It comes down to simple improvements to making the process better overall,” Vile said.