A Look at Lake Champlain & McKenzie Brook
By Kristin Williams, UVM Ext. Agronomy Outreach Professional
With the ever present focus on water quality in the state of Vermont, now is a good time to know where you sit on a map. Watersheds are not always an intuitive concept, particularly in Vermont where things can drain in unpredictable ways. A watershed is an area of land where the brooks, streams, and rivers all drain into a common location such as a lake or larger river. You can think of watersheds as a hierarchy. A drainage basin is the larger watershed unit for which all waters drain into a common large water body, such as Lake Champlain. Watersheds and sub-watersheds are a division of basins into smaller units. The entire lake is subdivided into sections for the management of water quality. One such segment is South Lake, which includes the McKenzie Brook watershed.
There have been efforts in the state to focus on these smaller watershed and sub-watershed units as a way to target efforts and resources in reducing phosphorus loading on Lake Champlain. Part of this effort is a funding focus on the part of NRCS. This approach is being piloted in an attempt to demonstrate whether more success can be gained from a geographic strategy. It should be noted that the “targets” are areas where additional money and time is being allotted, with the possibility that those “targets” will move as successes are reached. This is the first year of this approach.
The Champlain Valley Crop, Soil and Pasture Team has been participating in this focused effort. The watershed currently targeted that falls within our farm community is McKenzie Brook. Other watersheds currently in NRCS focus are Pike River, Rock River, and St. Albans Bay. McKenzie Brook proper is actually in New York, but this is the name of the watershed that extends above Crown Point Bridge in the north (near DAR state park, Addison VT) to Route 73 in the south (just north of Mt. Independence state park, Orwell VT) and covers a narrow geographic region inland from the lake including Hospital Creek, Whitney Creek, Braisted Brook and the Lake Champlain Tributary.
One of our grants that recently wrapped up was assessing the status of farmer’s nutrient management plans and helping farmers who needed new or updated plans get through the process. A second grant focused on the McKenzie Brook watershed is ongoing assisting farmers in signing up and following through with NRCS EQIP contracts to implement best management practices (BMPs). Thus far, NRCS has been able to obligate $800,000 of a $1 million dollar allocated potential for targeted conservation practices in McKenzie Brook watershed.
We will continue to assist farmers in signing up and implementing practices. In addition, we are happy to help farmers try projects on small plots that may be outside the payment structure of NRCS. Collectively, we hope to quantify both NRCS and non NRCS funded practices in McKenzie Brook to demonstrate conservation success over time. We also have demonstration projects set up specifically in McKenzie Brook, and will continue to facilitate discussion over successes and agronomic realities of practices. Look for information about upcoming events on our events webpage. However, you don’t have to be in McKenzie Brook to try a new practice. We have a lot of work going on in and around Chittenden, Addison and Rutland Counties, and imagine that “targets” may eventually move to other areas within the South Lake region.
This spring we also began engaging in a unique collaborative project with Middlebury College and the Department of Environmental Conservation that we will be continuing this fall/winter and hopefully into the future. Middlebury College students in a capstone environmental studies class embarked upon a semester long group project of their choosing. This spring students mapped existing water quality data in McKenzie Brook watershed, attended some of our workshops and meetings to distribute a farmer survey about water quality and tile drainage, attempted some water quality sampling, and presented findings to farmers. This fall another group of students will continue this work on water quality and land use mapping, water sampling, and/or “ground-truthing” of water quality modeling.
One important outcome of this work this spring was the visualization of data in a digestible format. The average concentration of phosphorus at five sample sites from 2012 to 2014 taken by the DEC is depicted in the map below (click to enlarge).
It should be noted that concentration and loading are two different things. We do not have flow data corresponding with this map (which may explain for example why concentrations in Upper Hospital Creek are greater than that of the West Tributary of Hospital Creek). We hope continued work will include flow monitoring to capture loading rates in addition to concentrations.
Another take-away point that should be reiterated in all this discussion of the Lake is that turning off the “valve” of phosphorus from sources isn’t the same as removing the phosphorus in the Lake. It may take substantial time to see efforts realized in the Lake even if various sectors in VT come together to reduce phosphorus loading, particularly as other factors such as rainfall and temperature continue to impact algal blooms. Therefore, we are hoping to capture an increase in farming BMPs over time as we work together with farmers, and hope to see that correlate with reduced phosphorus loading in particular tributaries. We aim to demonstrate the utility of BMPs and that the farming community is actively engaged in this process. This is an ambitious goal, and success will require buy-in from farmers and dedication from parties involved.
How do we have the “watershed moment” about watersheds? Hopefully, with continued engagement on this topic we can foster a collaborative community where farmers can learn from their neighbors and technical service providers can share information among farmers about how conservation practices are making for thriving agriculture and cleaner water in their own corner of the map.
For more information on this topic:
To sign up for NRCS EQIP cost-share in McKenzie Brook contact George Tucker [802-388-6748 ext 121 or email@example.com]
For questions about signing up you can also contact our office [802-388-4969].
For questions related to the Middlebury College projects and continued water quality work contact Kristin Williams [802-388-4969 ext. 331 or firstname.lastname@example.org]