Armed with coolers packed with sterile sample bottles and other field equipment for 36 years, usually six times every summer, volunteer citizen scientists have set out to approximately 30 sites on the main stem and tributaries of the Mad River collecting water samples. Analyzed in laboratories, the samples yield data on biological, chemical and physical conditions in the Mad River’s waters.
The body of water quality data collected through Mad River Watch is unparalleled in Vermont. This longest running program of Friends of the Mad River (FMR) has had broad reach in educating and influencing the community about public health and safety as well as environmental harm. It has provided data for municipal decisions and has documented long-term changes in the watershed. Mad River Watch (MRW) has been successful throughout the years in identifying sources of pollution and working with landowners, municipalities and funding agencies to resolve them. In celebrating successes of MRW, FMR is also looking ahead to see how it may change to address new challenges.
LAUNCHED IN 1985
Mad River Watch launched in 1985 as part of the River Watch Network, founded with the goal to inspire local people to revive their own rivers. Initially, MRW was sponsored by the Winooski Conservation District. Jack Byrne, director of River Watch Network, reached out to Harwood Union High School biology teacher John Kerrigan to oversee the laboratory for processing local samples.
“Mad River Watch has had a major impact, not just in making people aware of the Mad River, but on students -- they had hands-on experience and access to professional equipment. It inspired many to careers in science,” said John Kerrigan recalling early years of MRW. Originally, testing looked at fecal coliform, bacteria that lives in the intestines of animals and humans. Later, testing shifted to E. coli, a specific type of fecal coliform that is mostly harmless but can sometimes cause illness.
Kerrigan managed the lab for several years along the way with the team at Sugar bush Utilities who handle the resort’s water and wastewater systems. When Friends of the Mad River moved to the Wait House, an in-house lab was established to analyze E. coli. Between 2006 and 2019, samples were also analyzed in a state lab for turbidity and nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen.
The heart of the program has always been dedicated volunteers who develop relationships with their sampling sites and build expertise observing river conditions. “Volunteering for Mad River Watch solidified my connection to the river and its tributaries. Those early Monday mornings brought back memories of my sons playing in the river 40 years ago,” said longtime sampler Fran Plewak. “I’m not a scientist but participating in scientific research that benefited The Valley felt good.”
One of MRW’s goals has been public health. “We know that community members want to safely enjoy all the river offers, and they’ve looked to Mad River Watch to inform their recreational decisions,” said FMR executive director Corrie Miller, noting that swim holes have always been sampling sites, but that sampling offers only a snapshot of conditions when the sample was collected.
Results of E. coli bacteria levels posted in The Valley Reporter, online and on signs at swim holes educate the community about conditions that are not suitable for swimming -- levels greater than 235 colonies/100mL, according to the Vermont Department of Health, though the accepted level has changed through the years. Postings raise awareness of conditions that can lead to elevated pollutant levels -- failing septic systems and runoff from roads, farms and backyards.
“The best rule of thumb is to avoid swimming after it rains,” said Miller, underscoring the pollutants that runoff brings off the land to waterways. “Water quality tells us how well we’re doing as stewards of the land.”
In 2016, Fritz Gerhardt, PhD, did a detailed analysis of 30 years of MRW data. (See friendsofthemadriver. org). Among his findings were that 15 years of pH testing, measuring acidity or alkalinity of water, showed the river becoming increasingly acidic up to 1995. After 1995, levels rebounded to healthier levels. This followed implementation of the Clean Air Act, improving air quality and decreasing acid rain.
MRW data have identified “point” sources of contamination such as failing septic systems and disposal of animal waste, providing opportunities for FMR to work with property owners to correct them. Data have informed decisions about septic regulations and community infrastructure. Water quality results indicating failing systems in Warren Village were among evidence that helped the town get an Environmental Protection Agency grant for the village’s sewage system built in the early 2000s.
This summer, with COVID-19 and changes in available state lab testing and funding, MRW is trimmed down, sampling at just the 12 swim hole sites. These changes allow FMR to look ahead and plan next stages for the program.
A Snowmaking Proposal Led to the creation of Friends of the Mad River
2020 marks the Friends of the Mad River’s 30th anniversary. With the vision of “A thriving and resilient Mad River Valley, sustained by healthy land, clean water and an engaged community,” Friends of the Mad River has initiated and supported scores of waterway and watershed projects in those three decades. From its signature water quality monitoring Mad River Watch, to assisting with municipalities’ establishment of Fluvial Erosion Hazard Area Overlay Zoning Districts, to conservation partnerships that have led to public access at popular swim holes, to an extensive oral history archive preserving stories of early and mid-20th-century life in the watershed, to its current Ridge to River initiative for flood resilience, FMR is rooted in hard science as well as in the community.
To commemorate Friends of the Mad River’s anniversary this is the first of a series of articles that will explore FMR’s origins, projects, lessons learned and potential for the watershed and the Mad to be, as its original conservation plan states, “The Best River Ever.”
Interest in the Mad River surged in that late 1980s. Three factors were drawing local attention to the river -- a plan, a program and a proposal. The Mad River Valley Planning District Rural Resource Protection Plan, the Mad River Watch volunteer water quality monitoring program and Sugarbush’s proposal to expand snowmaking all heightened awareness of river issues. All contributed to the founding of Friends of the Mad River in 1990.
“Let’s look into taking this energy that is on the river and turn it into something positive,” said Kinny Perot, Warren, FMR co-founder recalling the genesis of FMR. Perot and others recognized that the moment provided an opportunity to start a watershed organization that could consider many factors affecting the Mad River and to develop a conservation plan to steward Valley land and water for present and future generations.
The 1988 Rural Resource Protection Plan was developed as a project of the Mad River Valley Planning District. Over 240 Valley residents participated in its process. Its goal was to conduct an inventory and develop conservation strategies for The Valley’s rural resources including historic, scenic and agricultural and river and trail.
Many local initiatives were rooted in this plan: designation of local historic districts to the National Register of Historic Places, founding of the Mad River Path Association, recommendations for resource protection measures in town plans.
Regarding the river, the plan noted the river’s recreational importance, with 44 known swim holes as well as fishing spots and boating access. Only an abbreviated list was published as almost every one was on privately-owned land. Maintaining swimmable, fishable water was a priority, noting that at times water quality did not meet safe standards. The plan encouraged property owners to comply with clean water regulations. It also encouraged public acquisition of critical recreation areas -- a priority that has had considerable success with Green Mountain National Forest acquisition of Warren Falls, public ownership of Warren’s Riverside Park, Waitsfield’s Lareau Swim Hole and more.
MAD RIVER WATCH
With origins in the 1970s on the Ottauquechee River, River Watch Network was founded to inspire local people and local communities to revive their own rivers. The program spread through Vermont and across the country. Mad River Watch started in 1985.
Today, as in the 1980s, Mad River Watch volunteers collect water samples at swim holes and other sites at regular intervals throughout the summer. The samples are tested for E. coli bacteria. It is estimated that at the level of 235 colonies E. coli per 100 mL water, approximately eight out of every 1,000 swimmers are likely to contract a waterborne illness related to fecal contamination. For 35 years, the community has had access to this public health information, and local residents have become remarkably savvy about recognizing when to stay out of the water. The test results have also helped identify problem sources.
Claneil Corporation’s 1988-1990 pursuit of permits to expand Sugarbush snowmaking was met with considerable enthusiasm. Expansion offered opportunity to make more snow, cover more trails and maintain more snow cover through January thaws and other whims of the weather.
The plan involved direct withdrawal of water from the Mad River and a snowmaking pond adjacent to the river. Along with enthusiasm for the proposal, there were concerns. What would the withdrawal mean for fish habitat and for the overall health of the river? Would shallower flow and anchor ice scour the riverbed? Would the pond blow out of its confinement during floods?
Recognizing that there were myriad questions, Perot organized a public meeting with river experts. Phil Huffman, then of the National Park Service, and John Echeverria, then of American Rivers, spoke to a full house at the Warren Town Hall about the Wild and Scenic River program. The meeting brought together diverse voices, and in its aftermath, determination to move ahead, beyond snowmaking, to develop a science- and community-based conservation plan for the river.Five years later, the “The Best River Ever: A Conservation Plan for the Mad River” was published and guided important conservation projects for over a decade.
This article was written by Mary Gow and originally published for the Valley Reporter on July 11, 2020
Gow lives in Warren and is a former member of the Friends of the Mad River board of directors.
Photo Credit: Amalia Veralli for #madshedlove, Corrie Miller, Kinny Perot, Jen Ryan Peterson for #madshedlove
Black Faces in Green Spaces: A Field Guide to Birding While Black
This time of year, as we look out our windows, walk along the trails criss-crossing the Valley, or dip our toes in the Mad, we are often treated to the chirps, caws, and songs of birds. Their beauty, complexity, delicacy, and intelligence inspires us. We are lucky to have the chance to watch Scarlet Tanagers, Eastern Bluebirds, and Yellow-Rumped Warblers migrate through our Valley each summer. It can be easy to take in these idyllic surroundings, watching birds flit between the branches, and forget the hard journey they took to get here.
This spring, on the morning of Memorial Day, just a few hours before George Floyd was murdered by members of the Minneapolis police department, Christian Cooper (onetime president of the Harvard Ornithological Club and current Audubon New York board member) was birding in Central Park, when a white woman called the police claiming Cooper, a black man, was threatening her. He had asked her to leash her dog. The incident sparked other black birders, like Corina Newsome, a graduate student studying ornithology, to speak out about their own experiences birding while black and to launch #blackbirdersweek.
We are on the far side of #blackbirdersweek now, but the death of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others, alongside daily encounters with racism like those experience by Christian Cooper, have kindled a national conversation about racism in the United States. Racism informs unchecked bias and sneaks into even well intentioned spaces. Even relatively small decisions can add up to an unequal distribution of both social and environmental ills. As we work on issues like climate change, water quality, flood resilience, and protecting biodiversity, we can only benefit from fostering an inclusive, diverse, and representative community. Many black, indigenous, and people of color have been making this connection for years and their leadership has paved the way for a more thoughtful and equitable definition of environmental stewardship.
Just on the other side of the Green Mountain ridge, Audubon Vermont's Education Director, Debbie Archer, spoke with Seven Days for their Stuck in Vermont Series about her experience as a birder, a black person, and an educator. Her work directly supports our avian neighbors by fostering the next generation of birders, nature-lovers, scientists, and environmentalists.
The next time you see a Baltimore Oriole, consider the long flight it takes each spring as a reminder that the diversity around us is not a passive thing. Just as the Oriole takes its thousand mile journey to add its vibrant hues and treetop calls to the chorus of summertime songbirds, we can each take responsibility for own voice, our own journey, in fostering a more inclusive community here in the Valley and wherever our wings take us.