We’ve Been Gearing Up For This Work For A Long Time: The VYCC Watershed Program

February 8, 2018 | 

A VYCC Program Highlight by Daniel Schmidt, Conservation Watershed Program Manager

“Is that a road or a stream?” asked Tracy, a corps member on VYCC’s Leadership Development Crew. She was referring to a ribbon of mud and water that was cutting a 12 inch-deep gully down the middle of what was originally a roadbed. Road erosion is often dramatic, especially on steep class 4 roads where water can move through a ditch with the force of a raging river. In this case, storm water from the ditch redirected its course onto the road where it proceeded to cut a trench a foot deep, up to 3 feet wide and several hundred feet long. All of this road material, about 1,000 cubic feet, was eventually deposited in a river at the bottom of the hill.

In watersheds across Vermont, erosion issues like this one are being identified, and fixed. In this case, the crew was able to create an earthen berm that would redirect the flow of stormwater from the road back into the ditch. Referred to as nonpoint source pollution, eroded sediments from a multitude of sources are carried into our lakes, streams and wetlands, often during heavy summer rain storms or spring melt. Individually each of these erosion events are responsible for minimal amounts of nutrient pollution, however, collectively they contribute significantly to the harmful algal blooms that plague Lake Champlain, Lake Carmi and other water bodies during the summer and fall.

VYCC, in conjunction with Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), is working to reduce non-point source pollution in Vermont’s watersheds and improve the health of our lakes and rivers. According to VT DEC, Vermonters value clean water and appreciate their local streams, lakes, and wetlands. Our economic prosperity and way of life depend on clean water. Clean water protects public health; supports fishing, swimming, boating, and other recreational uses; and provides critical wildlife habitat.”

Tracy’s Leadership Development Crew was just one of nine that worked on projects that protect and promote clean water in 2017. In fact, crews completed 19 different projects in 23 communities totally 32 weeks of work. This was a significant increase from the past few years but, looking back, VYCC has been gearing up for this type of work for a long time.

Since 1995, VYCC has worked with the Department of Environmental Conservation, Regional Planning Commissions, Conservation Districts and Watershed Groups to identify and implement water quality projects throughout the state. Over the course of 22 years, VYCC crews have, among other things, installed water bars, planted trees, constructed rain gardens, and worked a collective 81,458 hours to improve Vermont’s lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands. .

The evolution of our watershed program was born out of the thing that VYCC does best, build trails. Hiking trails, biking trails, ADA trails, are all built while uttering the same mantra, “drainage, drainage, drainage.” A sustainably built trail is one that redirects surface water away from the trail surface and into the surrounding area where it can infiltrate into the ground. This concept of improving drainage to increase infiltration is at the core of our watershed work.

Case in point, that raging river flowing down the middle of the road. It’s the perfect equation for erosion – steep slope, unconsolidated materials, high water volume, high water velocity = goodbye road. The solution? Keep the water in the ditch, where there is consolidated bed material that will not erode, and through use of a turnout redirect the water into the forest where it will slow, spread, and infiltrate into the ground.

Our watershed program has grown to include dozens of projects taking place in watersheds throughout Vermont. Last year VYCC crews installed timber check dams in eroding gullies in Rupert, Middlebury, Essex, Williston and Bolton, assessed and implemented class 4 road remediation in Middlesex, Moretown, Brookfield, Woodbury, Waitsfield, Cabot, Marshfield, and Barre Town, and planted native trees along river banks in Hinesburg, Charlotte, Calais, Huntington, Jericho, and Rochester. And more is planned for 2018. Throughout our planning season (i.e. winter) we’re making some big leaps, including fully incorporating watershed work into our corps-wide training program, streamlining our project outcome analysis and reporting process, and creating employment and education opportunities for VYCC crew members in the field of watershed science.

As you’re driving around Vermont this summer, keep an eye out for VYCC watershed crews. You’ll likely find them placing stone in eroding gullies or planting trees along stream banks or installing rain gardens in a town park.  Or maybe you won’t see them but you’ll begin to notice their work in the form of healthier lakes and rivers.

Contact Daniel to learn more about this program.