Headwaters to Lake, Part I

by Matthew Witten, LCMM

HTL student examines burr reed at CGC Sept 2016 LCMM’s Headwaters to Lake program started with a big splash in late September. Eight eager students from Champlain Valley Union High School (CVU) in Hinesburg showed up, ready to get their feet wet, at Common Ground Center in Starksboro, our base camp for studying upper Lewis Creek and some of its associated wetlands.

Headwaters to Lake is a brand-new freshwater science training funded through conservation license plate donations, awarded by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. The program gives students exposure to professional-level water quality assessment methods from higher elevations in the watershed down to the bottom, where Lewis Creek meets Lake Champlain. Participating students undertake an independent study through their CVU Environmental Studies class and will be eligible to receive academic credit for learning and conducting various stream, wetland, and lake studies.

We started by driving up a winding dirt road into the hills of Starksboro. Parking on land owned by a Lewis Creek Association board member, we hiked down a steep bank into a ravine where the narrow tributary is almost entirely shaded by a dense forest of hemlock and mixed hardwoods. LCMM Ecology Programs Director Elizabeth Lee and School Liaison Matt Witten co-taught methods to assess the health of the stream: first, a set of observations about forest cover, streambank stability and the riparian corridor; then, chemical tests including measurements of nitrogen, phosphorus, pH and dissolved oxygen; and, finally, to get an indication of the biological integrity of the stream, collecting macroinvertebrates that were rubbed off rocks and captured in a “kick-net.” The little insect nymphs were plucked and sucked out of the net with tweezers and pipets. The abundance and diversity of taxa was rather low, probably due to siltation caused by a recent violent flash flood. Nevertheless, the students were fascinated with the mayflies as well as a couple of very small newts they caught.

In the afternoon after lunch, we did the same observations and tests back at Common Ground Center. The center is located below some agricultural activity and a greater density of houses, roads, and cleared land. The differences in the water were obvious: a greater abundance of invertebrates, plus the lucky catch of a “slimy sculpin,” a fish that, despite its name, has beautiful feathery pectoral fins and is an indicator of relatively clean water. Temperature was slightly higher, and dissolved oxygen levels were slightly lower. Elizabeth deployed a drift net for about 10 minutes. This rectangular, fine-mesh net passively accepts whatever is floating down the stream. When she dumped out the contents, it was amazing how much filamentous algae was waterborne. The algae, along with the many falling late September leaves are organic “inputs” to the stream that help feed the invertebrates that fish feed on. The inputs can also carry nutrients to the lake, which can contribute to eutrophication.

Chemical, physical, and biological assessment methods now well entrenched in students’ minds, we all took some free time, and dinner all together. In the evening, Matt gave an overview of the federal and Vermont Clean Water Acts so that students gained further insight into how society attempts to protect the eater bodies that the students had just dabbled in. This was followed by “Dam Nation,” an award-winning movie about the ecological and political implications of building and then, in some cases, removing large dams on rivers in the western U.S.

After sleeping in the cabins at Common Ground, some with sleeping bags not quite up to the task of a chilly night, the students were more or less ready to do wetland work on day 2 of their water quality intensive training. The day began with a plant study in a wetland on the property. After learning how various plants have evolved to surviving in water, a guest came on the scene: Matt Montgomery, an environmental compliance consultant and wetland delineator by trade. Matt pulled out his box of tricks that he uses to determine where boundaries of wetlands are: shovel, flagging tape, auger, and soil references, among other things.

It took no time for Matt to have the willing students digging 2 pits: one in an obviously wet, mucky area, and one in a drier upland hayfield nearby. Looking carefully at the “horizons” – or layers – of soil in the pits, Matt explained how the color, texture, and smell of a soil could indicate whether the sample occurs in what is scientifically determined to be a wetland or upland. The students seemed very engaged in Matt’s real-world perspective, and asked him a number of questions about his work.

Finally, the students did a sampling of the macroinvertebrates in the wetland, which proved to be much different from the stream, most notably turning up a leech. Also present were a dragonfly nymph as well as a dragonfly adult caught in an insect net. Diversity of dragonflies in a wetland can be a mark of ecosystem health.

We are confident that the exposure to maps, concepts of water conservation, water quality assessment protocols, and investigating the natural history of plants and animals occurring in wet places made for a rich experience for students. We’ll see soon what study projects result from their training and their passion for clean water!

This project was funded in part by a Vermont Watershed Grant.