CHESTERTOWN — Warnings started being posted on Facebook going into the weekend about high levels of bacteria in the Chester and Sassafras rivers and their tributaries, including popular swimming spots like Betterton Beach, as a result of the heavy rains from Tropical Storm Isaias.
The first alert came Thursday, Aug. 6, with the Kent County Health Department issuing a public health advisory for Fairlee Creek through Aug. 18. The advisory was the result of issues in the Tolchester wastewater system when Tropical Storm Isaias blew through two days prior.
According to the notice posted on Facebook, the wastewater system “experienced high flows, from the storm. That ultimately led to a force main break that likely discharged more than 47,000 gallons of wastewater into a roadside ditch.
“Swimming or other contact, fishing, and crabbing should be avoided in Fairlee Creek until August 18th for monitoring,” the notice from the health department states.
On Friday, Aug. 7, ShoreRivers posted on Facebook that many of its water quality monitoring sites failed bacteria tests because of the rainfall over the course of the week.
ShoreRivers is a clean water advocacy group based in Easton. Local riverkeepers are part of the organization’s team and conduct water quality testing throughout the region. Safety results are posted at www.theswimguide.org/affiliates/shore-rivers.
Chester Riverkeeper Tim Trumbauer in a separate Facebook post Aug. 7 wrote that more than 7 inches of rain over the week led to a lot of runoff entering the river and its tributaries.
“On the river and in the larger tributaries there is a clear delineation between the normal river water and the brown, turbid water with runoff — high bacteria levels were recorded in all of our sample locations where the water was turbid, essentially everywhere upriver of Southeast Creek on the Chester and in the upper areas of major tributaries,” Trumbauer posted.
The testing sites listed were Duck Neck, Morgan Creek, Chestertown, the Centreville wharf and Grays Inn Creek, with bacteria levels reportedly 10 times above recommended Environmental Protection Agency thresholds.
“Unfortunately, I recommend avoiding water contact in the areas mentioned above, at least until the water clears up. I will continue to monitor the situation through the weekend with spot sampling and post results here and at www.theswimguide.org,” Trumbauer posted.
In an update posted Aug. 9, Trumbaeur wrote that there was some good news: The Chestertown marina’s bacteria levels were back below the EPA threshold.
“While this does show that the river is improving following the heavy rains of last week, please note that there still may be areas of high bacteria or other pollution. As always, we recommend avoiding water contact if the water is especially turbid, green or red, or otherwise looks or smells off,” he posted Aug. 9.
All the previously listed sites along the Chester and its tributaries remained unsafe for swimming Wednesday morning, Aug. 12 to the online swimming guide.
Likewise, monitoring sites in the Sassafras River failed bacteria tests, according to a post by Riverkeeper Zack Kelleher on Aug. 6 and were still listed online as unsafe on Aug. 12.
The Sassafras was already under a health advisory due to a toxic algae bloom throughout much of the river, from Turner’s Creek up to and past Fox Hole Landing.
Kelleher previously said rain could help flush out the algae bloom. In his Aug. 6 post, he said while the rain did help, the algae concentrations are still unsafe.
“Please continue to exercise caution when accessing the river and limit or avoid water contact as much as possible,” Kelleher posted.
Algae aside, bacteria levels reported Aug. 6 showed all sites on the Sassafras reportedly failed. Kelleher wrote that the rain “inundated septic systems and wastewater treatment plants,” leading to bacteria levels three to eight times above EPA thresholds.
Kelleher listed the following testing sites, all marked as failed: the Georgetown bridge, Indian Acres, Turner’s Creek and Betterton Beach.
“Also, please be advised that bacteria is not the only thing washed in the river. There is a lot of debris, algae, watermeal, and other detritus, so please take care if you are on a boat,” Trumbauer posted about local waterways Aug. 7.