A Connected Landscape: The Clear Waters Initiative

Clough Farm across the Wells River

The eastern brook trout, greenish-brown, with yellow marbling and a pink belly, is prized by local anglers— so much so, that it is one of Vermont’s two state fish.

Anglers and biologists alike consider the brook trout to be an indicator species, meaning a healthy population is a sign of a healthy watershed, from the smallest headwater streams on. That’s why the fish inspired VLT’s Clear Waters Initiative. Initially funded through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in 2015-16, the initiative uses education, land assessments, and conservation easements to protect water quality. What’s good for the brook trout—stable temperatures and low sediment and nutrient runoff—is good for other species as well.

“It’s interesting to look at a stream from the perspective of a trout,” said VLT ecologist Allaire Diamond. “What will help this animal, what’s going to hinder it?”

Brook Trout

The initiative primarily focused on land within the watersheds of the Wells, Waits, and Ompompanoosuc Rivers. These watersheds, covering southern Caledonia, northern Washington, and a bit of Orange County, have many cool, clear, forested streams: ideal brook trout habitat.

“Allaire and I visited with landowners, walked streams, and noted features like pools, woody materials, eroded banks, and riffles,” explained VLT’s Caitlin Cusack. “All these features impact a stream’s suitability for trout. After, we gave the landowners reports with maps and recommendations.”

Neighbors Rich and Ann Chalmers and Tom Kavet, who own a total of 783 acres in Williamstown and Washington, recently conserved their land with support from the initiative. Their hilly terrain sits on a watershed divide, with headwaters that flow to Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River.

“We love being out in the woods,” said Rich. “There’s a lot of wildlife out there; we have moose, bobcat, and bear.” With multiple wetlands and 14 vernal pools, it’s “kind of a biological hotspot,” added Tom.

“We realized that there was an opportunity to do something particularly special,” Rich said. “We see this as a first step. We’re hoping other neighbors will join us.”

Farms are an important part of the initiative as well. VLT’s largest river protection project is on the Clough Farm in Ryegate and Groton. Kelly and Rick Clough have run a dairy there for more than 25 years.

The Cloughs, who initially conserved their farm in 1989, worked with VLT and the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation to create an 84-acre ‘corridor’ within which the Wells River can change its path without interference. It’s important for a river to be able to move naturally as storms come and go. If a river can’t overflow, heavy rain can increase its speed, flooding, and resulting damage.

“The Cloughs’ portion of the river is particularly important for flood control because it is directly upstream of the village of South Ryegate,” explained Caitlin.

VLT worked with the Cloughs to establish a river corridor easement, which enhances the protections outlined in the original farm easement. This means the Cloughs gave up the right to armor the riverbank, which will now meander naturally even if it damages a field during a storm.

“We believe in trying to keep water quality on people’s minds,” Rick said of his highly visible farm. “We’re right in front of Route 302; we’ve got two miles of river frontage.”

As part of the project, some farmland was taken out of production and trees were planted to create a 50-foot forested buffer along the river. “These trees will cast shade, their roots will stabilize the banks, and the leaves will provide food for aquatic organisms,” explained Caitlin. The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets, the US Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service also contributed to the project.

Learn about VLT’s water quality work in this video

Further west, in Vershire, VLT organized a stream crossing workshop on conserved land. Attendees learned how crossings can support aquatic species. The host landowner installed a culvert with a natural, rocky bottom wider than the stream channel. Trout and other species navigating streams can easily pass through such crossings, whereas narrow, metal culverts elevated above the water line cut off entire stream segments as habitat.

“All these little stream crossings,” Allaire said, “if you magnify them across the landscape, you have thousands of places to improve watersheds for trout and other species. It’s just one way that individual landowners can make a difference for water quality and wildlife habitat.”

This article originally appeared in the Vermont Land Trust’s 2016-17 Annual Report. Story written by Sky Barsch. Trout photo by Michael Humling; Farm photo by Caleb Kenna.