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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
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Women of water

Scientists work to preserve the Connecticut River

A version of this story was published in Vermont Woman earlier this year.

The Connecticut River Valley has been in use for at least 11,000 years, as witnessed by the rock petroglyphs on its Vermont shoreline in Bellows Falls.

It was verdant and good hunting grounds for early indigenous peoples. Indian corn fields flourished on both sides of the river in the rich floodplains along its length.

The river, whose name springs from Algonquian languages and means “long tidal river,” was the principal north-south travel route before the advent of roads and rails.

Today, with 22 dams along its 410-mile length, complete Connecticut River watershed assessments are being carried out for the first time in 50 years.

The complete system is being studied and mapped, with five of the river’s hydroelectric dams up for relicensing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Three of these dams are in Vermont and New Hampshire, and two in Massachusetts. FERC filed a notice of intent and pre-application document in August.

The FERC relicensing process has spurred a four-state collaborative process involving Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont, all gathering data and assessing the Connecticut River’s watershed and its uses.

The four states have agreed to keep four things in mind: the ecology and effects of the flow of the river, recreational uses, erosion, and the temperature of the water.

Scientists at work

Founded in 1951, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), calls itself the leading conservation organization in the world. Boasting a million members, the organization’s mission is to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people.

A nonprofit, with Vermont offices in Montpelier and West Haven, TNC has been an integral player in bringing back the health of the state’s waterways and wetlands by modeling what successful remediation, restoration and conservation look like.

Three scientists at TNC — Rose Paul, Kathryn Kennedy, and Kimberly Lutz — are front and center in considering the Connecticut River, making sure all the components of biology and ecology, as well as usages for recreation and energy, are measured in what’s best for the river. And that’s key to creating a model of the whole Connecticut River watershed.

Emily Boedecker, deputy state director of TNC in Montpelier, said in a recent interview, “We are in the fourth year of a five-year project to develop a flow model for the river, so that all parties involved have the knowledge, opportunity and say in how the watershed could be managed. We have been working with 70 partners just in development.”

Having been through similar relicensing efforts, Boedecker emphasized that the two hallmarks are to work through science and collaboration.

“We bring the science to explain what opportunities there are in watershed management. We are talking about a complex system. A river influences all natural communities within a flow. We’re looking at the best possible outcome for people and nature,” she said.

Boedecker said that Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 was “a real wake-up call” for everyone, and showed how important it is to understand how an entire river system works.

“We have a once-in-a-lifetime chance or ability to influence the river for the next 50 years,” she said. “We want the best available information, and we need to work collaboratively.”

Post-Irene realities

Rose Paul, who has been director of science and stewardship for TNC in Vermont for 15 years, concurred. She said that she has seen “evolving trends in conservation. Conservation is changing. There is more emphasis on fresh water conservation. It’s not all about terrestrial sites (anymore).”

She added that TNC’s board of trustees was urging its field offices to “think harder about freshwater conservation and incorporate it into our priorities.”

Paul said TNC had begun to think in “bigger and bigger scales, and over years. Nature doesn’t have boundaries like cities and states have boundaries.”

So TNC, explained Paul, has likewise encouraged cross-boundary collaboration, as on the Connecticut River and “even international collaboration with an increasing emphasis on natural processes that support plants and animals that support communities.

“We are just starting this [permitting process] and for the next five years will be thinking about the three Vermont-New Hampshire hydro dams, and how they are affecting the flow regime of the river.”

Paul said this is an opportunity for communities to “get” the benefits of hydro-electric energy, and “do a little better for the ecology of the river at the same time. We can get the natural cycle back without affecting power generation.”

She emphasized the critical need for understanding the river’s flow, what she called “the root cause in the natural process of the river.” The flow pattern “affects species in and beside the river riparian zone.”

A riparian zone is science’s term for river banks, which Vermonters were taught by Irene can wash away in floodwaters, or provide some protection when buffering woodlands are preserved.

Engineering the future

Kathryn Kennedy is an Applied River Scientist for TNC. She said she spends most of her time in front of a computer, but her favorite place is on the water.

She said she likes to sit, listen and observe while her husband fishes.

“I was primarily hired to navigate TNC through the FERC process,” Kennedy said, but “another part is kind of guiding the ecosystem component of the whole hydrological system.”

That means she will be working with the New England District Office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, located at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and their Hydrologic Engineering Center, along with the U.S. Geologic Survey.

She and the engineers will be mapping different models of the “broad basin, or whole Connecticut River watershed.” By modeling different options, they can predict likely outcomes.

The headwaters of the Connecticut River begin in a little New Hampshire pond called the Fourth Connecticut Lake on the Canadian border, meandering quietly at first, then majestically rolling onward, down between Vermont and New Hampshire, southward through Massachusetts, and on to Connecticut, where it finally empties into Long Island Sound 410 miles later.

Kennedy may spend half her time at the computer, but she also has been “talking to people a lot and learning what people’s values are along the river system. What are they looking to accomplish with some of the models? How can they see these models helping them make those decisions? And trying to understand the biology and ecology in the river, as well as being guided by experts.”

What Kennedy is developing are primarily tools for water managers. “I think about the ecology and biology, and how we can ensure that those connections are adequately described in the models for guidance.”

She explained, “Right now, it’s just a computer model,” meaning it is her job to help translate what are essentially mathematical models.

“I ensure that the ecological [component] is adequately described, by making sure that we are adequately accounting for the ecology. Are we sure that these flows are adequate for these organisms or communities, in terms of the modeling, thereby ensuring the water needs of the biological communities?”

She does this, she says, “by looking at what the modelers give me, based on water flow.”

River meets land

Kimberly Lutz is director of the TNC Connecticut River Program. She started out her career with a master’s thesis in prairie ecology; she ended up on the Savannah River doing a terrestrial project for a large military installation.

She became interested in the river and invited several of her colleagues down for a week to brainstorm a Savannah River project. She started to see the complexity of the river as a whole system that involved both terrestrial features and water.

“The complexity of rivers brings together watersheds and all the land elements, all the aquatic elements, for a holistic view of the land and water together,” Lutz contends.

“I was totally hooked. Now I’m passionate about water and water issues have been my thing ever since.”

When the Connecticut River job came up, and she saw its challenge, involving four states, she said, “I’m always up for an adventure, and we’d never lived in New England.” So in 2003, she and her family moved from Savannah, Ga., up to Northampton, Mass.

Boedecker had said that Lutz launched the river program by working on improving the overall flow plan of the river and its flood plain, so the Connecticut River can “expand and breathe.”

“There was some planning done before I moved up,” Lutz modestly said of her work, “by all four states. And part of that planning was how would a plan work on a watershed that spans all four states? They realized they needed to hire a director.” But, she said, “A good portion of the thought process had already been done.”

And how simple was it?

“When I got here, 40 folks from federal and state agencies, academia, and NGOs went through a planning process called Conservation Action Planning, or CAP.”

She explained that, in a series of meetings that lasted about a year, “various partners” came up with “strategies and themes we are still working on today.”

Her job today is what she calls matrix management.

“It’s kind of interesting how we deploy across the [Connecticut River] basin,” Lutz said, adding that there is a sort of synergy, not unlike the flow of the river itself, because TNC also thinks on a large scale.

“I guess I think of my position as the knitter,” she explained. “There is a lot of interaction with federal entities nationwide. I not only deploy people on the ground, but at a higher level, We’re figuring out a flood plain’s key elements. It takes all those levels to make a successful collaboration.”

Ecosystems, not states

She introduced another new term: whole-system management. This is a kind of ecosystem and land management that, unlike earlier approaches, acknowledges the interconnection of animal and plant life, land and water.

Lutz said that it really started on the East Coast with a handful of conservation projects. About eight years ago, she noted, some 50 organizations banded together as friends of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

Its purpose: to conserve the abundance and diversity of native plants and animals and their habitats in the 7.2 million-acre Connecticut River watershed in the four-state region.

In 1991, shortly before his death, U.S. Rep. Silvio O. Conte, R-Mass., asked Congress to establish a National Wildlife Refuge on the river.

Conte said that his dream for his home state of Massachusetts included, “a Connecticut River, cleaned, fishable, swimmable, and with salmon restored to abundant numbers. And a dream that someday my children and grandchildren will continue to enjoy the outdoors as I have, and not be saddled with a planet polluted beyond repair.”

In 1997, the established federal refuge was named in his honor.

In 2011, the Conte Refuge and four state directors of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) collaborated on education projects and initiated conservation projects with willing landowners.

NRCS funding allowed the Conte Refuge to hire a private lands biologist for two years. That person works collaboratively with NRCS field staff in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, in conjunction with respective state fish and wildlife agencies.

In 2012, the Connecticut River was designated the first of the American Blueways, part of the Great Outdoors Initiative of the U.S. Department of the Interior, a program that supports an array of smaller river rehab efforts.

The reintroduction of disease-resistant American elm in floodplains, to create a forested buffer zone that will capture sediment and provide shade to keep waters cool, is one of these projects that Rose Paul is involved with.

The Elm redux

“We have flood plain scientists doing detailed studies on the dominant species,” Paul explained.

She meant the floodplain elms, which were devastated by Dutch Elm Disease decades ago. They are now rare, but viewed as necessary among those species that grow up to become canopy trees, providing shade to keep water temperatures cool.

“The important role of elm trees in river ecology is as really good shade trees and they are very long-lived trees,” Paul said. “They provide shade to keep cold water cold. Cool waters are really important. The colder the water, the more oxygen it contains, so it’s an important shade tree along streams and rivers.”

Paul said that elms are still common in both our upland forest streams and along lowland riversides.

She explained that green ash, silver maple and black willow still make up most floodplain forests, but they make for a somewhat homogenous forest.

“What’s missing is the elms as the other dominant tree in floodplain forests. The American elms would have been longer lived than silver maples, the tallest tree popping up above. That is a lot of habitat for all kinds of different birds, arboreal mammals and insects. That habitat has been missing,” she said.

“The American elms have evolved to withstand Dutch Elm Disease (DED),” Paul said. “The U.S. Forest Service went around the entire range of elms, looking for survivor trees that were big enough and old enough to have survived several waves of DED. They found that some of these survivor trees happened to have developed a natural resistance. A nursery in Ohio propagated them. They would inoculate them with DED, and if they didn’t live through the challenge of the disease, the lineage was removed from consideration.”

The Forest Service ended up with an elm with a true resistance to the disease. These are the trees being reintroduced at various conservancy locations along the Connecticut River.

“I’ve been monitoring these trees twice a year, and they are showing very good survivorship, with many still alive,” she said.

Why connect?

“I do have this feeling of nurturing in terms of managing these places,” Paul said about her work. “In my heart it feels nurturing when I am keeping an eye out and helping to intervene on the Connecticut River. I really enjoy a feeling of nurturing those early Elm starts, and then having to back away and let it grow up and make it on its own.”

Kennedy likewise recalled, “It was a pretty poignant moment when I realized that my direction in life was [to be] a voice for the voiceless. I think I got into the field because I was compassionate about the natural world and nature. My skills are analytical, so I meld problem-solving and compassion.”

Boedecker notes that women are coming into roles within TNC. “We’ve had a pretty good balance in gender roles in science and conservation,” she said.

She added that, “with the FERC relicensing, dealing with dam owners and hydropower, there is a stark difference. I do believe the female way of being present in discussions and negotiation changes the dynamics in the room. It brings a different approach, a different energy into a tough discussion.”

Lutz had just come back from a women-in-leadership workshop sponsored by the TNC, and observed, “To be successful, all kinds of approaches work.”

But to be collaborative, “We need a matrix and diversity of thought, which makes for strong organizations.”

It’s not unlike nature, which thrives through its diversity.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #221 (Wednesday, September 18, 2013).

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