Home News and Features Thinking Like a Watershed: A Renaissance on the Winooski

Thinking Like a Watershed: A Renaissance on the Winooski

Image of winooski river in Montpelier Vermont, with mudflats exposed.
Mud flats caused by the Bailey Dam may contain contaminated silt. Photo by John Dillon.
Montpelier is cradled by water. The Winooski River and its tributaries encircle the city like a flowing necklace, shaping both the urban and natural landscape. 

Yet this most precious resource has been long damaged by dams and development, harnessed for power, and treated as a sewer. While the sewage is mostly gone, climate change is now a worsening threat. For years, the river seemed unappreciated and almost unnoticed except when floods or ice jams brought it to the headlines. 

But this familiar pattern of use and neglect is changing. The Winooski is getting a lot of love these days. The Siboinebi Path and the Cross Vermont Trail bring walkers and cyclists close to the water. A new city park planned for construction next year at the confluence of the main stem and the North Branch will make the river fully accessible to everyone. And the city is slowly separating stormwater and sewage systems to keep the river cleaner during heavy rain or snow melt. Even some of the dams that alter the flow and — during drought — leave a mucky expanse of river bottom exposed above the Main Street bridge are being studied for possible removal. 

The Bailey Dam, near what is now Shaw’s supermarket in Montpelier, was originally built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1934 to control ice buildup. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Full disclosure: Anglers refer to rivers they fish locally as “home waters,” and the Winooski is my go-to stream. I have hunted trout in its riffles and pools for the better part of three decades. For me, the river offers a ribbon of nature beside city streets. I’ve fished alongside mink and great blue heron, and I’ve seen diving osprey spook a downtown pool. What continues to surprise is that sometimes the fish are still there if you meet at the right time and know what to tempt them with. Fisher people are full of secrets and lies, but I know for a fact that big fish can be caught within sight of the Statehouse.

Bret Ladago is a state fisheries biologist whose watery beat includes the upper Winooski down to Bolton Dam. He says the river in Montpelier is far from ideal habitat. For starters, trout and the healthy streams that support them need cool water to thrive. 

“The main stem, especially through Montpelier, does get warm,” he says. “There’s a lot of open space, not a lot of depth, not a lot of vegetation along the shores.” 

Water above 70 degrees will stress trout, and water above 80 degrees can be lethal. State biologists use data loggers to record the water temperature every hour at multiple sites from June to October. They’ve seen some bath-like conditions, especially in the North Branch, where a record 89 degrees was logged in the river near the recreation field on Elm Street.

Climate change obviously makes these conditions worse. Ladago says the river used to cool consistently in September, but now the warming often persists into the fall. More frequent summer droughts and low levels of winter snowpack exacerbate the problem. Yet the low flows are increasingly punctuated by dramatic rain events. Ladago says a recent study shows that the Dog River, which enters the Winooski below the Interstate 89 overpass, now sees annual floods that historically occurred every two years. These heavy rains erode stream banks and can smother spawning grounds with sediment.

“Now they [floods] are happening more frequently and when they do happen, they tend to be more extreme,” he says.

A gauge at the Langdon Street Bridge shows recent flood levels on the North Branch. Photo by John Dillon.
Humans can help protect the river, Ladago says, by leaving vegetated buffers along the banks to provide cooling shade and cover. He uses the expression “trout grow on trees” to make the connection between what happens on the land and the health of the water. 

“People like to see a nicely manicured lawn right down to the water’s edge, but that’s not necessarily what’s good for the ecosystem or the fish,” he says. “So, if you own any property adjacent to the stream, let it grow or plant trees.”

Michele Braun, executive director of Friends of the Winooski, is also not a big fan of lawns. She says the grassy expanses are actually a desert for biodiversity. Unlike trees or streamside bushes, lawns don’t provide cooling shade or deflect rain, so they also contribute to stormwater runoff.

“Every person who manages land in the watershed has the opportunity to contribute to a healthy landscape by managing their land to support the local food chain,” she says. 

Aging Infrastructure and a New Park

The city’s aging infrastructure is another big threat to water quality. Heavy rains often overwhelm the underground pipes that handle both the stormwater and sanitary sewer systems. When they overflow, untreated sewage can wash downstream. Fixing the last of these “combined sewer overflows” [CSOs] is a long-term but costly goal. 

And even during low flows, levels of harmful bacteria — E. coli — are seen in the river around Montpelier, Braun says. She notes that these counts are particularly high in the North Branch near the city’s planned Confluence Park near Taylor Street. 

“It always exceeds the standard for E. coli, so it’s not safe for contact recreation right now,” Braun says. 

There’s no single source for the bacterial pollution, according to Braun. E. coli live in the intestines of warm-blooded animals, so waste from dogs, raccoons, even pigeons contribute.

But if the new park won’t be safe for a dip, it will provide a path to the water for everyone at all levels of mobility. Steve Libby, executive director of the Vermont River Conservancy, says the park reflects the nonprofit’s goals of creating access for all. 

“In the design phase we have followed a couple of basic principles, one of those being we wanted to get people right down to the edge of the river with an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant pathway … That was a really important motivator for us.” 

The River Conservancy is working with the city to plan and build the small park. Libby says early estimates put the cost at $1.2 million, a price tag likely to rise because of the expected expense of removing contaminated soil at the site.

The site of the future park is now a frequent gathering spot for some of the city’s unhoused population. Libby acknowledges the challenge of creating a new public space there that is welcoming to all, including seniors and families with young children. He says the extensive construction required to build a handicapped-accessible pathway down the bank will give an opportunity to “reset the clock” on how the place is used.

“A really important consideration for the park is how to make it truly inclusive for everybody and yet not have to be dominated by any one particular user group,” he says.

A view of the Statehouse from the Winooski River, Bailey Dam. Photo by John Dillon.
Removing Dams

Long term, Libby, Braun, and other river advocates have their eye on unused dams at several sites in and around Montpelier that have degraded the Winooski over the years. The conservancy recently secured funding for a feasibility study of removing the dam upstream from Pioneer Street and the Bailey Dam near the Main Street bridge. 

The study will look at different options, “from doing nothing to what is it going to take to restore the river in Montpelier to as close to its reference condition as you can,” Libby says.

When the Bailey Dam was built, engineers widened and straightened the river by blasting and removing rock ledge upstream. The dam was originally designed to reduce ice jams and flooding, but it didn’t work in 1992, when a large ice jam broke and inundated downtown. The city now has more effective ways of removing jams, including using a crane to smash the ice with an I-beam and pumping warmer treated effluent from the wastewater plant to help it melt. 

River advocates now say that a free-flowing stream would support a more natural habitat and offer more recreational opportunities such as kayaking in the heart of the capital city.

But again, the silt that has accumulated upstream could be an expensive problem, especially if it’s contaminated by previous industrial uses in the city. 

The potential dam removal is another sign that the once-ignored river is now seen as an asset to be protected and restored. Those twin goals are also laid out in the Winooski River tactical basin plan, a comprehensive state document that covers the environmental challenges and opportunities for the entire Winooski River watershed. 

Karen Bates, watershed planner with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, says the updated 2023 edition will prioritize water that needs protection from thermal stresses. 

“During the tactical basin planning process, we will be identifying specific areas we should be working in to ensure that temperatures either are maintained or reduced,” she says. 

The public can weigh in with a survey on the planning division’s website and through partner groups such as Friends of the Winooski.

“There’s a recognition that Vermonters use our surface waters and value them for aesthetics, recreational use, drinking water,” Bates says. “And our work is to make sure those uses continue to be available to Vermonters. And in order to do that we have to manage how we use the landscape.”

Improvements can include expensive engineering work to redirect stormwater away from streams or more simple measures such as planting trees. Funding is available through the state or groups such as Friends of the Winooski. “We will work with the community to identify interested landowners so then they can apply for grants,” Bates says. 

Thinking Like a Watershed

The Winooski that flows through Montpelier begins as a tiny stream in Cabot and runs 90 miles to Lake Champlain. Along the way it’s fed by seven tributaries, including the Dog River and the North Branch that meet the main stem within the city limits. 

The river’s drainage forms the largest watershed in the Lake Champlain basin, so what happens on or near the Winooski — including stormwater runoff and sewage overflows — affects the lake’s water quality downstream. That means there is a very clear link between the Winooski basin plan and restoring Lake Champlain. “It [the plan] does set goals … for phosphorus reduction that the state then uses to direct its [cleanup] work,” Bates says. 

Bates, Libby, and others say thinking like a watershed allows us to look more holistically at problems such as flooding, nutrient pollution, or climate impacts. Libby points out that flooding in Montpelier can potentially be addressed by taking better care of the land and waters upstream, such as conserving wetlands that serve as buffers for high water or addressing chronic flood-prone streams such as Great Brook in Plainfield. 

“That’s a bigger long-term effort,” Libby acknowledges. “But if we can diligently work away at that, then protecting upstream areas that have good flood resilience will be important for Montpelier.”

Michele Braun of Friends of the Winooski also hopes people will learn more about the river around them — and under them. She says there are parts of Montpelier, such as her Marvin Street neighborhood, where the rivulets that feed the Winooski are actually channeled through storm drains under city streets. 

“We are all more connected to the river than we realize,” she says.

Annual Cleanup September 10

Friends of the Winooski holds its annual river clean up in Montpelier on Sept. 10. Volunteers are needed to help remove trash at sites on the North Branch and the main branch of the river.

Be prepared to get dirty! Wear clothing and footwear suitable for walking in the river and along its banks. Gloves are also recommended for picking up mucky stuff in the stream. 

Friends of the Winooski has held the annual event for over two decades. Executive Director Michele Braun says it’s extremely satisfying to fill a canoe with junk from the water.

“It’s very fun. People who have been doing it really enjoy it, and I encourage people to volunteer,” she says.

Organizers ask people to meet in front of Montpelier City Hall at 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 10. Barre will hold its river cleanup on Sept. 24.