Researchers gather Vermont water quality baseline data

HUNTINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Improving water quality in Lake Champlain and its tributaries is one of the Vermont's most pressing issues. New research wrapping up this week aims to see how Vermont stacks up against other states.

Brush Brook in Huntington is flowing freely from recent rains. And it's the last site of a two-year study.

"What we do is we go out and we look at the biological health of streams throughout the entire state," said Heather Pembrook, who is leading the research for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. "This is a tremendous, beautiful stream right here. And we think, 'No problem, we're better than the rest of the country, it's not a big deal.' But what we're finding is that even though these waters are in good condition, they're starting to slip."

The location is the last of 20 they've looked at statewide to take measurements for the EPA. It's part of a nationwide study on the health of the country's streams.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: Why do we care?
Heather Pembrook: Well, because our rivers are an indicator of the overall health of the ecosystem.

Jim Deshler is one of the researchers looking at the wildlife here -- water bugs and fish -- and says it's been slim pickings. "Brook trout probably about as big as they're going to get in this stream." he said. "There's not a ton of fish here, but the flows have been pretty high this spring."

They've caught a few fish so far including the slimy sculpin. "Fish are one of the great ecological indicators because depending on what type of fish and how many are here, we can actually say what the condition of the stream is," Pembrook said.

They're also looking at the water chemistry. Nutrients are a big challenge. "In a place like this, a lot of time the stressors are roads -- stormwater runoff from dirt roads," Pembrook said.

And measuring the physical habitat -- how wide the stream is to see how the water flow is changing.

While they won't see the complete picture from the EPA for several years, Pembrook says understanding what happens here can help preserve spots like this for the future. "It's way easier to protect water or land or air before it starts to decline," she said.

The state of Vermont is actually taking that study one step further. They're looking at 75 sites across Vermont to get a big picture of our water health. That data should be available by 2021.