Can we regenerate our watersheds?

VERMONT FAMILY FORESTS is “re-wilding” the Cold Brook watershed just north of Bristol with the goal of enabling the comeback of healthy, self-willed old forests, particularly in the areas near rivers and streams. Shown here is a tributary to Baldwin Brook, which in turn flows into the New Haven River. Projects like this show that recovery is possible. Photo / Matthew Witten

I am skeptical that those of us trained in western science should make claims about regeneration of the land or water. Understandably, as we witness degradation around us, we yearn to come into balance, to limit and maybe even correct some of the damages humans have wrought.

I do believe we can reduce our impact. Here in Vermont there are so many opportunities to give our friends — the land, the plants, the animals and the water — a chance to recover from a few centuries of development, agriculture, industry and pollution. So heartening to see willows and red osier dogwood sprouting thickly on formerly bare stream banks, to hear the insistent, loud call of the osprey who was once nearly extinct here, and to watch a moose lope through our fields, its population also rebounded from extirpation. Recovery is possible.

I’m willing to give us the benefit of the doubt, as long as we can remember that our tinkering may be misguided — or maybe one-dimensional — compared to the methods practiced for thousands of years by our Abenaki and Iroquois neighbors, and by the plants, animals, slime molds and fungi themselves. So much repair is needed; we are obligated to try.

What is the tinkering we could attempt that might help regenerate watersheds?

First step: I’d like us to consider setting aside our tinkering to get to know the spirit of a place. Or maybe you see this practice as following the Aristotelean path of making observations before hypothesizing. Either way, pausing to listen, look, smell and touch a place is important. Not only do bird-watchers, photographers, and artists do this, but so do hunters on their pre-dawn vigils in the forest, anglers clad in waders standing hip-deep in cool waters, and farmers walking their fields.

It takes time. Might the wetland delineator sit and eat her lunch slowly while gazing out at the wetland? Might the fluvial geomorphologist (that is, a scientist who studies how rivers behave) bring his family to spend a morning playing by the river he’s hired to analyze?

In her wonderful book “Braiding Sweetgrass,” Robin Wall Kimmerer says: “Restoring a habitat, no matter how well intentioned, produces casualties.” When Kimmerer spent hours upon hours to clear her eutrophic pond of mats of algae in order to restore the small body of water to a more balanced ecosystem, she had to keep reminding herself to pause. She found bullfrog tadpoles embedded in the gobs of green filamentous algae she raked to shore. She took the time to pick them out and throw them back in the water. When she whacked away at willows, she caught sight of a tiny bird’s nest just as she was about to cut the branches on which it sat. “I peered inside and there were three eggs the size of lima beans lying in a circlet of pine needles. What a treasure I had nearly destroyed in my zeal to ‘improve’ the habitat.”

THE QUALITY OF the water in Pond Brook, a tributary of Lewis Creek that is just upstream of Last Resort Farm, suffered when agriculture practices resulted in runoff through a sugarbush into the brook. After landowners addressed the problem, the stream has begun to repair itself. Photo / Matthew Witten

Next step: try to let nature do her own repairing, when possible.

David Brynn of Vermont Family Forests believes that part of our duty is to enable the comeback of “healthy, intact, self-willed, wild, old forests,” especially in riparian zones (i.e., near-river places) and floodplains. Marc and Cheryl Cesario, of Meeting Place Pastures in Cornwall, point to the advantages of grazing their cows and sheep in way that “mimics natural herbivorous herds,” moving their animals from one paddock to another every 8-12 hours.

Case Study: Last Resort Farm’s Approach

“Pretty much everything we do has to do with conservation of water,” Eugenie Doyle observed on a sunny afternoon this early spring. Doyle, her husband, Sam Burr, and their son, Silas Doyle-Burr, produce certified organic hay, maple sap, small fruits, vegetables, cover crops, and hemp at Last Resort Farm in Monkton.

Doyle, Burr and Doyle-Burr use drip irrigation to conserve water. They plant cover crops, which add organic matter to the soil and help it hold water. They fertilize carefully to reduce the amount of nutrients that are leached out of their fields by rain.

On that recent spring day Burr brought visitors to an area of the farm’s landscape that — with some nudging from various partners — is in the process of healing itself. In an attempt to protect water quality, Burr got involved in a water stewardship project that was designed to encourage nature to heal some damage that had occurred over a number of years. Burr pointed out six channels through a steep sugarbush treated with rocks, logs, and brush. The forest did not always look like this.

Burr believes that the problem began when he and Doyle replaced the sloping cornfield above the site with permanent hay. In storms, rainwater would drain into the hayfield from the vegetable fields on top of the knoll. By the time the water reached the sugarbush, it ran with enough energy to carve gullies up to eight feet deep and five feet wide and erode large amounts forest soil into Pond Brook, a tributary to Lewis Creek.

In 2012, water sampling by the Lewis Creek Association (LCA) indicated that the area was a source of sediment and phosphorus washing into Pond Brook. This type of runoff can be a big problem for water quality. “The extra nutrients and sediment affect our whole ecosystem and food web, from the insects that live in the stream, through the fish, amphibians and reptiles, and birds that feed on them, to the humans that rely on fishing for food and a clean lake for drinking water and swimming,” said LCA Program Manager Kate Kelly. LCA shared the data with Doyle and Burr.

“It became clear that some of this stuff was coming from forested areas,” Burr recalled.  “We were all concerned about Pond Brook.  So what could we do about it?”

In 2012, LCA and Last Resort Farm applied successfully for funding to treat the gullies. The Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the USDA, granted funds to treat the two most highly eroded gullies by laying geotextile fabric and lining the gullies with rock.  LCA used funds from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources to hire engineers to design alternative treatments for the remaining gullies.

Engineers from Milone and MacBroom Inc. (now SLR) designed a “soft” fix.  Their plan matched treatment practices to the degree of erosion in each gully and called for on-site trees to be cut and placed in the gullies by hand, minimizing the impact of heavy machinery on the forest and fields.

The Last Resort farmers smoothed the fields above the gullies. They provided tree trunks and brush from the site. LCA hired a logger to cut trees and arrange the woody material in the gullies, as per the engineers’ designs. The resulting small dams and brush piles control erosion by slowing the flow of water towards the brook. Work on the NRCS gullies, which required heavy equipment, had to wait until the ground froze that winter.  The project was completed in early 2015.

Today, the gullies have settled into the landscape.  Fallen leaves, brush, and sediment are layered on top of the original rock and woody materials.

“The NRCS gullies are probably more effective, but not tremendously,” Burr observed.  In contrast to the fully rock-lined gullies, the farmers can maintain the “soft” gully treatments themselves, or use similar techniques to treat any new gullies that may develop.

“I think farmers now are realizing it’s important to take steps to deal with [erosion,]” Burr reflected. His advice to other farmers concerned about water quality?  “You need to watch your woods, not just the fields.”  LCA hopes that data collected by Addison County River Watch Collaborative will show what they and Burr have believed all along: that the gully treatments have improved water quality in Pond Brook and beyond.

Looking ahead: In the coming years Addison County River Watch Collaborative will be dipping its toes into restoration projects in riparian areas, focusing on increasing vegetated swaths of land adjacent to rivers. As we engage in this work, I hope we will to take the time to listen and look first, and then to find opportunities for nature to render her own healing.

My request to you is to help us find landowners who are willing to stop mowing or growing crops along river banks. Help us understand the very complex matter of stabilizing river banks and “regenerating” riparian areas amid ever-changing conditions. And, if we do decide to round up volunteers to help plant trees and shrubs, please consider joining us!

Matthew Witten is the director of Addison County River Watch Collaborative. Abel Fillion, board member of the Lewis Creek Association, wrote the section about Last Resort Farm’s restoration work.

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