A Resilient Mad River Watershed
Saturday is the 10 year anniversary of Tropical Storm Irene when around 6 inches of rain fell in the Mad River watershed in a matter of hours, causing the river to crest at ~19 feet at the gage in Moretown, a full 10 feet above flood stage. The damage to infrastructure and peoples’ homes and businesses was significant. “After Irene, the community came together to take care of each other,” recalled Katie Sullivan, Friends’ board member and Warren School teacher. “The way people pitched in and helped, however they could, was a true testament to this community’s spirit.” That spirit of community central to the Irene recovery effort continued in the efforts for resiliency over the decade since. “Town board representatives planning and acting together across town lines as part of the Ridge to River initiative, homeowners enhancing their homes and driveways with Storm Smart, Town reps and road crews upgrading culverts and improving roads, Mad River Watch volunteers dedicating time and energy to understand the river,” listed Corrie Miller, Friends’ Director. “Over the last decade, our community has worked hard, learned a lot about the opportunities we have to shape our future, and made great strides together towards resilience.”
It Takes a Village
This past Sunday and Monday, 23 Friends of the Mad River’s (FMR) Mad River Watch volunteers visited 21 field sites across the valley in order to monitor water quality, make detailed environmental observations, and leave the site better than they found it. It was their sixth and final field exploration this summer. As Lisa Koitzsch, Mad River Watch Coordinator, greeted volunteers on their return from their last field day, they were reflective on their learning and experience, putting pieces together from a summer’s worth of observations and asking questions about what more they can do to support a clean river and resilient watershed. “With our new directive this year as River Watchers to spend more time making observations of the natural surroundings along the riverbanks, we found a new appreciation of the diversity and resiliency of plant life within the sometimes challenging environment bordering the river,” said Julie Westervelt of Warren about her experience volunteering with her daughter, Ingrid. “Taking a closer look has helped us understand the beauty of this special ecosystem that’s such an integral part of our community here in the Valley.”
A young Warren volunteer thinking in geologic time annotated his drawing of the Freeman Brook site with: “the big rock was carved out by water and made three water shoots over time.” A Fayston mother/daughter volunteer duo also noticed changes to the Ward Access landscape caused by water, but in a much shorter time frame: “a growing sand bar upstream will likely disappear in the rain to come tonight,” and added, “changes to the beach from the rain are lovely to watch.”
A Warren volunteer took note of a change at Rice Brook since her last field day that will likely enhance trout habitat, “the tree with the holes fell over and has become part of the stream.” Another volunteer in Waitsfield, on the other hand, noted a change that may reduce the quality of aquatic habitat: “the property was mowed or hayed for the first time this summer and only a narrow riparian buffer was left by the mower.”
A summer Warren resident, noticed the seasonal changes at the Wabanaki Conservation Area: “interesting how my site has changed in two months: vegetation, water levels, and traffic on 100” but also worked with the Town of Warren and Vtrans to clean up the Kingsbury Bridge.
Volunteers removed beer cans, baby diapers, household trash, and takeout containers from stream sides and marveled at fleeting wildlife including cedar waxwings, red-winged blackbirds, geese, mourning doves, and an eastern kingbird, as well as tent caterpillars, water striders, a groundhog, and unknown animal holes and unidentified scat.
In consideration of the greener sides of biodiversity, Julie and Ingrid Westervelt collected and preserved physical examples of plants at the Warren Covered bridge. “Many are common plants we see along our local roadsides, and we were curious to know more about them. We were pleasantly surprised to find a good mix of native species from flowers such as Common Boneset and St. John’s wort to trees such as Balsam Poplar and Sugar Maple and non-natives such as Smooth Brome grass and Chicory to Clematis and Rugosa Rose,” said Julie Westervelt.
Water temperatures ranged from a low of 63°F at Warren Falls to a high of 71°F at the USGS gage in Moretown on Monday. This fall, FMR will compile other data and observations and share key findings and highlights in the Valley Reporter and online at friendsofthemadriver.org/madriverwatch. “Paying attention to a changing landscape is a critical step as we seek to understand opportunities to build the watershed’s resilience to a changing climate,” remarked Corrie Miller. “The Mad River Watch volunteers, landowners, and funders their energies to this resilience work and continue to make our community better.
Watching the Watershed
On August 8th and 9th Friends of the Mad River’s (FMR) Mad River Watch volunteers visited field sites across the valley in order to monitor water quality and make detailed environmental observations for their fifth field exploration this summer. This article is part of a series highlighting the questions and field work driving volunteers to find answers about the health of the Mad River watershed, as well as the community of supporters that make it possible.
Taking the Broad View
Mad River Watch Volunteers are part of a community-science based effort, rooted in careful observations, to better understand the ecological health of the whole watershed. The process of gathering observations starts as soon as volunteers arrive at their site. They note the weather conditions and any major changes, like fallen trees or new stream channels.
“Taking in the whole picture is a critical first step in any kind of field work,” explains Lisa Koitzsch, Mad River Watch Coordinator. “Focusing too narrowly on chasing data points can lead to overlooking critical information and even add to the risk of an unsafe situation. It’s exciting to see black bears and other wildlife from a distance, but the last thing we want is to stumble into their space unaware.” In addition to her work with Friends, Lisa has also plays a key role as a field researcher studying wolves and moose in Yellowstone and Isle Royale National Parks.
Before moving on to take pollutant measurements, volunteers take a series of calibrated photos that will show change over time at each field site.
Water quality measurements of phosphate and temperature can tell us about conditions of the river directly and serve as indicators of other trends. The local context helps explain why certain data points show up. “When you look at a given field site, you can see the amount of shade the trees provide or take note of how close you are to a road or farm - factors that can influence temperature or the presence of certain pollutants,” explains Friends’ Director, Corrie Miller.
“After taking in the big picture, volunteers focus on more detailed observations. Our river and stream corridors are like highways for many kinds of wildlife,” says Koitzsch. “Pawprints or scat can tell us who has been there recently. By looking for signs like these, our volunteers are also learning more about the complexity of the natural world along the Mad River. Mad River Watch 2.0 is really about building a skilled corps of volunteers in conjunction with collecting data on the health of the watershed.” In addition to tracking wildlife and identifying birds, volunteers also take note of the plant life and whether or not it is native, changes to the natural community through the season, impacts of recent weather conditions, as well as signs of human activities like trash or fire pits.
The same app that volunteers use for taking water quality data also allows them to record their observations by taking photos, videos, and audio recordings of their field sites. Volunteers also keep field journals to draw sketches and write more detailed descriptions of their findings. “Hand-written notes and observations are still really useful for field work and are not going out of style any time soon,” says Koitzsch.
While visiting their field sites, many Mad River Watch volunteers find more artistic ways to connect with the river and its tributaries. "Some write poems or reflections on the watershed and others draw field sketches,” explains Friends board member, Kinny Perot. “The sounds, the smells, the sights, and the animals living along and traveling the stream, kids playing in the water, and the cooling dips after working in the garden are all part of the flow of life here in the valley. Reflections like these, as well as a belated celebration of Friends’ 30th anniversary, are what gave rise to Evan Primo’s newest musical composition, My river runs to thee.”
Scrag Mountain Music, led by bassist and composer Evan Primo and soprano Mary Bonhag, is hosting celebrated Abenaki singer-songwriter, Brian Blanchette, and the Aeolus Quartet to perform at the Phantom Theater in Warren on Saturday, August 14th and 1pm. The group will host a second performance in Hubbard Park in Montpelier on Sunday, August 15th at 1pm. Tickets are ‘pay-what-you-can’ and can be purchased online at www.scragmountainmusic.org/watershed.
Highlights from the Field
A volunteer at Shepard Brook noted the impacts of recent weather. “The water level was not noticeably higher even after a brief but torrential rain last night. Some suspended solids on the water, only noticeable in the sampling container, not in the running water. In contrast, the main body of the Mad was so muddy it looked like chocolate milk.”
Another volunteer noted their own impact on their field site at Dowsville Brook. “I saw a Gray catbird, crows or ravens, I disturb a Rock pigeon under the bridge each time I visit. As I was getting ready to leave, I flushed two brown/gray waterfowl who quickly took off downstream. Mallards perhaps?”
The mother/daughter volunteers at Ward’s Access have paid close attention to the way the river changes with time. “Erosion and deposition continue to change the shape of the beach but in small ways, the rocky beach is getting slightly smaller, with water encroaching, washing away on both East and West ends.”
This week saw 16 teams of volunteers visit 19 field sites. Water temperatures ranged from a low of 60.47°F at Rice Brook in Warren on Sunday to a high of 67.5°F at the USGS gage in Moretown on Monday. Over the summer, FMR will compile data and observations and share key findings and highlights in the Valley Reporter and online at friendsofthemadriver.org/madriverwatch.
of the Mad River