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Why Vermont streams have become more powerful — and how that fuels devastating flooding

Rivers and streams have changed dramatically over the past 150 years. The Winooski River (pictured) caused damage to communities around the state this past week.
Kyle Ambusk
Vermont Public
Rivers and streams have changed dramatically over the past 250 years. The Winooski River (pictured) caused damage to communities around the state this past week.

Our rivers weren’t always this fast, deep or powerful — we made them this way.

Brave Little State is Vermont Public’s listener-driven journalism show. In each episode, we answer a question about Vermont that’s been asked — and voted on — by you, our audience.

For months, Lexi Krupp has been reporting a story to answer this question from Gus Goodwin of East Montpelier:

“What does an old stream look like? Does Vermont have any? And can we manage for them?”

Now, against the backdrop of historic flooding around the state, Gus’ question has taken on newfound meaning and urgency.

Keep reading below for a transcript of the episode. Meanwhile, find the latest resources and reporting about the flooding and recovery efforts here.

Note: Our show is made for the ear. We recommend pressing play on the audio posted here. For accessibility, we also provide a transcript of the episode below.


Josh Crane: This is Brave Little State. I’m Josh Crane.

Lexi Krupp: And I’m Lexi Krupp. Just as we were putting the finishing touches on this episode, a huge storm hit Vermont.

Josh Crane: It dumped historic amounts of rain — in some areas, as much as nine inches — and has led to catastrophic flooding.

[Vermont Public coverage - montage]

The center of the village is underwater…

At some points, it almost looks like I’m looking across the Mississippi River…

They literally need a boat to come rescue them…

It’s already the worst flooding event since Tropical Storm Irene in 2011…

I almost can’t wrap my head around it…

Josh Crane: The recovery process will take days, months or years, depending on the area. And Vermonters are watching the weather forecasts very closely, wary of even more rain.

Lexi Krupp: Many people are dealing with uncertainty about where they will sleep tonight, whether their business will survive, or how to find clean drinking water.

Josh Crane: If you have questions about the flooding and recovery efforts, please visit for timely resources and information.

Lexi Krupp: The storm is part of a concerning trend, as climate change is bringing more extreme rainfall to the state. But understanding why this flooding emergency has been so destructive is not as simple as looking at the sheer amount of rain we got in recent days and weeks.

Josh Crane: Another piece to the puzzle is the focus of our story today — a story, by the way, that you, Lexi, have been reporting on for months.

Lexi Krupp: It started with a listener question voted on by you, the Brave Little State audience, back in early May. And it’s about a part of Vermont’s landscape that’s sometimes overlooked – at least, until we experience big storms like the one that hit this week: our streams and rivers.

Mike Kline: It's just so much of the storage, the natural watershed and floodplain storage has been diminished because of our encroachments and our past river management.

Lexi Krupp: Mike Kline is a river ecologist and geomorphologist — that means he studies the movement of rivers. He says many streams and rivers in Vermont today are much faster and deeper and more powerful than they used to be. And that means they can be much more destructive.

Mike Kline studies the movement of rivers. He says rivers have become much faster and more powerful over the years.
Lexi Krupp
Vermont Public
Mike Kline is a river ecologist from Middlesex. He says rivers have become much faster and more powerful since before European colonization. Earlier this week, he couldn't reach his home because the surrounding roads were washed out.

Mike Kline: When that water recedes, and you see the roads washed out, that won't be from inundation. All the roads in Middlesex that I can't drive home on, that's erosion!

Lexi Krupp: When I spoke to Mike a few days ago, he still wasn’t able to reach his home in Middlesex because of the flooding. He was staying with friends in the Burlington area.

Mike Kline: This is the second time that I've been a flood refugee in Vermont. In my profession it is kind of ironic.

Lexi Krupp: Mike’s house was also inaccessible during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. But he says Vermont’s rivers haven’t always been this powerful. As it turns out, we made them this way.


Josh Crane: This is a story about the way our rivers used to be, which did not look like the perfect babbling brooks you might find in a nature calendar.

Rudi Ruddell: I think a lot of them are just not even remotely what we have in mind as a stream.

Josh Crane: And also how and why we changed them.

Mike Kline: There was a mentality 150 years ago that you had an obligation as a citizen to straighten your stream.

Josh Crane: This history helps explain some of the devastation caused by the flooding emergency in Vermont as we release this story. In efforts to bring our streams closer to a natural state are part of the key to resiliency.

Tyler Brown: After a heavy rain, this dam, it's slowing the flow of water, it's capturing a lot of water, a lot of sediment that otherwise would just go downstream.

Josh Crane: Brave Little State is a proud member of the NPR Network. Welcome.

(commercial break)

 A small, makeshift wooden bridge over a forested stream. Ferns line the banks, along with several small trees.
Lexi Krupp
Vermont Public
Mike Kline says the stream that runs behind his home is getting back to a more natural state. The channel has room to spill over onto the banks when it rains, and it takes a meandering path through the forest.

A timely question

Lexi Krupp: Our question-asker Gus Goodwin is an ecologist and conservation planner for The Nature Conservancy.

Gus Goodwin: My training is – and comfort zone – is plants and rocks. You know, that's really my sweet spot.

Lexi Krupp: So, not streams. But he worked on several restoration projects involving streams and rivers in recent years.

Gus Goodwin: And it's just kind of blown my mind.

Lexi Krupp: And what’s been so surprising to him is just how much our streams have changed.

Gus Goodwin: As an ecologist, I can’t believe how long it took me to understand how far streams have been pushed away from what they looked like so long ago. I should know better!

Lexi Krupp: So, he wrote in to Brave Little State:

Gus Goodwin: What does an old stream look like? Does Vermont have any? And can we manage for them?


A big, glorious mess

Lexi Krupp: I want you to close your eyes and go back in time. Imagine it’s 500 years ago, in this place we now call Vermont. You’re walking on a hillside, where the forest extends in every direction. Some of the trees around you are huge — there’s beeches you can wrap your arms around, plus maples, yellow birch and hemlock, young and old. Overhead, there’s a gap in the canopy where sunlight streams through. And there’s downed trees everywhere. In some places, it’s hard to navigate. You have to duck and scramble to get around. And when it rains, the water doesn’t go straight into the stream.

Bill Keeton: It moves through the forest canopy slowly as it drips down through the foliage.

Bill Keeton is a forest ecosystem scientist at the University of Vermont.

Bill Keeton: When it reaches the forest floor there’s a lot more complexity — the woody debris, the plant community.

Lexi Krupp: In lots of places, the forest floor is soft and covered in mounds of moss. You keep going and, eventually, you hear running water, but it’s hard to find the edges of a single stream.

More from Brave Little State: Does Vermont Have Any Patches Of Old Growth Forest?

Shayne Jaquith: You see a river that is really multiple rivers. Instead of the single thread that we’re all so accustomed to ... we have rivers that are multiple channels, there’s really no one dominant channel.

Lexi Krupp: And there’s just stuff everywhere.

Bill Keeton: The main thing that you notice is just the large woody debris, you know, the number of big old trees lying in all different manner, like in the channel, across the channel, suspended above the channel.  

Lexi Krupp: Branches, boulders and stumps, all piled up, and tons of trapped leaves that provide food and hiding places for all sorts of creatures. In some places, these log jams are massive. Some of the debris could’ve been stuck there for years. And this stuff in the streambed — it changes how the water moves. There’s places where the channel is fast and deep, slow and shallow, and every combination in between.

Gretchen Alexander: You might be on a shallow gravel bar, the next step in a 5 foot deep pool..

Shayne Jaquith: There’s deep pools, there’s shallow components. There’s a bunch of different patches of fine sand, patches of bigger gravel. And really it just looks like a mess.

Lexi Krupp: A big, glorious mess.


'Infested with wood'

Lexi Krupp: Before we get any further, a quick semantic clarification: When we think about streams versus rivers, there’s no bright line in the sand, that’s according to some of the scientists I spoke to. Generally, we think of a stream as small and a river as big, but the terms are often interchangeable; really, streams are all part of a larger river system. And that refers not just to the water flowing through a channel. It’s also the banks and surrounding land where the water can spill out during a big rainstorm. And whether you want to call it a river or a stream, a brook or a creek, there’s a common history that played out here.

Gus Goodwin: It's a story that we mostly know about our forests, a lot of people do — that the European settlers and colonists arrived. We cleared off the forest, we sheeped the state, hard, and then we abandoned it. And the forests have grown back, to some extent. And a similar story must have played out for our streams, but I think it was much more severe.

Lexi Krupp: Many early European settlers wrote about how hard it was to follow — or even find — the river channel when going up or downstream. One researcher I got in touch with remembers reading some of these accounts — like a quote from a settler in Georgia that went something like, "I've never seen a river so infested with wood." So the settlers did what they were prone to do: tried extremely hard to bend the world to their will. Consequences be damned. And so on top of deforesting the landscape, they also removed all the piles of wood and boulders from rivers and streams. The two activities were inextricably linked because of how they moved timber.

Mike Kline: You can't put a log down a messy stream. You know, a natural stream that has lots of wood in it, lots of bends and big boulders from glaciers –– all the logs will get hung up.  

Lexi Krupp: Mike Kline again, the river ecologist from Middlesex. He says that beginning in the 1700s, crews of men and horses worked like crazy from April to Novemberto pick out wood and boulders from our streams. And to straighten the streams themselves.

Mike Kline: And they would crowbar out any obstruction in the stream.

Lexi Krupp: And if they couldn’t move it by hand…

Mike Kline: …they would drill and dynamite it.

Lexi Krupp: Yeah, European settlers came to this region and started blowing up rivers. And this wasn’t just on big rivers. Even smaller streams on hillsides were cleared to move wood. Meanwhile, as settlers cut down the surrounding trees and vegetation — it caused a ton of erosion.

Mike Kline: Our rivers were literally buried in sediment that wasted from mountains and hillsides. Most of our state was, you know, glacial lakes. And so all that sediment that was impounded in those glacial lakes was now coming down off hillsides into the valleys and smothering our streams and rivers.

Lexi Krupp: That dirt from the 17 and 1800sis still here. Mike has seen it.

Mike Kline: We were measuring anywhere from a couple feet to a couple meters of sediment. I mean, there are literally rivers today that are still adjusting from that time. 

Lexi Krupp: And even as our state’s land use practices changed and the forests started to regrow, this European settler mentality about our rivers and streams remained. For decades, it was seen as a civic duty to keep your stream neat and straight.

Mike Kline: There’s laws — a Vermont law — that says if you didn't straighten your stream and properly drain your land, your neighbor could go to the selectboard, and get permission to come on your land and do it for you. There was a mentality 150 years ago that you had an obligation as a citizen to straighten your stream.

A dangerous dynamic

Lexi Krupp: But here’s the problem: taking downed trees out and straightening a stream makes it more powerful. It’s sort of like a trail on a mountain that doesn’t have any switchbacks — it’s more steep, so the water flows faster. The stream will start cutting down into the bedrock, so it gets deeper. Then, water can’t spill out along the stream channel, where it has a chance to soak into the ground — that’s until there’s a really big storm.

Rudi Ruddell remembers seeing this in action at a stream in Bethel after Tropical Storm Irene.

 A painting shows four images the illustrate an erosional process that rivers go through. They have varying shades of yellow in rows.
Gretchen Alexander
A painting by Gretchen Alexander illustrates the process of erosion along a riverbed.

Rudi Ruddell: I was walking down the stream and the stream kind of disappeared, but I could hear it still. And I suddenly realized that what had happened in Irene was this log jam had formed. And the stream had risen five feet in a single storm, and was back up at a level where it was re-accessing the historic floodplains that it had.

Lexi Krupp: Rudi is a scientist with the nonprofit White River Partnership. He says that Irene was sort of a wake-up call. And it led to a big policy shift in how we think about river management. That means everything from building bigger culverts to protecting land along streams and rivers that can act as floodplains. So, while the ongoing flood emergency has caused incredible damage, Rudi says, at least in some places, it could have been even worse.

Rudi Ruddell: It hurts when we get slammed. But, in reality, we're slowly making progress and it’s happening on a lot of different fronts. Sizing culverts properly has spared us a lot of damage this round. 


Lexi Krupp: Gus Goodwin, today’s winning question-asker, lives in East Montpelier, one of the hardest-hit areas of Vermont in the ongoing flood emergency. Shortly before publishing, we reached out. He wrote back saying he’s safe, but right now, his question feels more urgent than curious. And that, as Vermont builds back from this disaster, he wants us to remember the undeniable link between the health of the natural world and the well-being of our human communities.

Does Vermont have any old streams?

Lexi Krupp: Gus’ original question wasn’t just about how our streams have changed, though. He also wanted to know if any Vermont streams exist today in their old, messy form. And, if we still have any old streams, where are they?

Shayne Jaquith: Boy did I spend a lot of time looking. It was like the needle in the haystack. 

Lexi Krupp: Shayne Jaquith is a river scientist at The Nature Conservancy. But for years, he was working for the state, with Mike Kline — specifically trying to find undisturbed streams in Vermont. Looking back on it, he says the places to find old streams are in old forests — like in the Gifford Woods in Killington, sections of the Green Mountain National Forest, the headwaters of the Clyde River in Island Pond and the Sleepers River in Danville — anywhere you might find big trees in the water. But those spots are few and far between.

Shayne Jaquith: I can tell you that I don’t often come across streams with a lot of large wood structure in them. 

Gretchen Alexander: It’s more of like a feeling than an actual condition.

Lexi Krupp: Gretchen Alexander is a river ecologist and artist who lives in Jericho, and spent over 15 years surveying Vermont streams with the state. Over that time, she says she hasn’t seen any rivers that are untouched. But there are patches here and there that seem like old streams.

Gretchen Alexander: Like you get the vibe of like, good stuff is happening here.

Lexi Krupp: There is one big exception though, where the landscape does resemble what it might have looked like a couple hundred years ago.

Ben Dittbrenner: There’s also the beaver component

Biologist Tyler Brown using a “beaver baffle” to lower the water levels in a pond to conserve beaver-created wetlands. This pond is in Albany in the Northeast Kingdom.
Lexi Krupp
Vermont Public
Biologist Tyler Brown using a “beaver baffle” to lower the water levels at a pond in Albany, Vermont to conserve beaver-created wetlands.

'67 beaver per square mile'

Lexi Krupp: In much of this part of the world, for millennia, many streams would have been full of beavers — a lot of beavers.

Ben Dittbrenner: So before Europeans came to the North American continent,we estimate there’s about 400 million beaver. Sothat’s a lot of beaver, that turns out to be about 67 beaver per square mile.

Lexi Krupp: Ben Dittbrenner is an ecologist at Northeastern University. He studies how beaver dams can guard stream habitats against climate change. And he loves beavers.

Ben Dittbrenner: Castor canadensis is our North American hero. And they’ve been shown to be actively damming streams and changing the environment for about 20 million years. So they basically have evolved with our natural systems.

Lexi Krupp: It’s important to note that beavers won’t build a dam on a stream that isn’t flowing year-round, or a channel that’s too big or too steep, where the water would blow out a dam. But anywhere else is fair game. So a lot of streams in Vermont would have just looked like a big chain of wetlands.

Ben Dittbrenner: They were — sometimes, no single thing you could point at as a stream. Just these dams cascading into another pond, and just basically like, beaver condominiums going on forever.

Lexi Krupp: These beaver condos were a boon to other wildlife, too. Because they’re not like human-built dams. They’re much leakier. 

Ben Dittbrenner: Fish literally squiggle into the dam. It's a nice hiding place, they can rest, but they can actually make it through the dam itself. So it is not an impervious wall.

Lexi Krupp: European settlers, of course, did not care much for beavers – except for their fur. And by the mid-1800s, people had trapped out pretty much all the beavers from Vermont. In recent decades though, beavers have come booming back. They're nowhere near as abundant as they once were. We've built roads, houses and farms where a lot of old beaver habitat used to be. But at some of the beaver ponds in the state now, you can get a sense of what an old stream used to look like.

Getting back to a natural, 'messier' state

(bird sounds)

Lexi Krupp: Like at a wetland in Albany in the Northeast Kingdom that was literally buzzing with activity. I went there in June with biologist Tyler Brown.

Tyler Brown: You can hear so many different birds singing. There's a white-throated sparrow that I keep hearing up on the bank. It's one of my favorite birds to listen to. It just has this like very calming, soothing whistle … (whistle) ... right there. There's a bunch of frogs chirping in the back. But yeah, the amount of wildlife that are attracted to beaver-created wetlands is remarkable.

Lexi Krupp: Tyler works for the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife. At wetlands like this, he’s seen woodpeckers and wood ducks and bats…

Tyler Brown: Moose will commonly come to these areas. Bears will even den in abandoned beaver lodges. It’s got a nice little cavity they can crawl up into.

Lexi Krupp: Tyler has spent a lot of time hanging out in beaver ponds because part of his job with the state is trying to keep the peace between beavers and people. In this case, the town of Albany was nervous the beaver dam here could burst and wash out the road. Instead of trapping the beavers out, they called in Tyler to install this thing that lowers the water levels in the pond by about a foot. It’s called a “beaver baffle.” It looks like a cage attached to a big pipe that will sit underwater.

Tyler Brown: There's a bunch of holes drilled in the pipe that's inside the cage. That's where the water will enter. It'll flow through the pipe, and then through, through the dam.

 A painting of a stream running through a forest with evidence of past beaver activity -- chewed logs, and old dams.
Gretchen Alexander
Gretchen Alexander often paints landscapes inspired by her work as a river ecologist. In June, she was working on this painting of an abandoned beaver dam on Mill Brook in Jericho. She says dams like this are good for water quality because they store nutrients and sediment and help restore floodplain access.

Lexi Krupp: The state has installed hundreds of these devices in the past 20 years. It’s part of a project to try to conserve beaver-created wetlands. And letting beavers just be is not just good for wildlife. It’s good for human infrastructure too.

Tyler Brown: It can reduce erosion because when, after a heavy rain, this dam – it's slowing the flow of water, it's capturing a lot of water, a lot of sediment that otherwise would just go downstream. And it's allowing this area to absorb a lot of that water, it's getting reabsorbed into the ground.

Lexi Krupp: All of this helps streams get back to a more natural, messier state, which is another thing Gus, our question asker, also wanted to know about: How to manage for old streams. So, one big way to do it: learn to live with beavers. But not all of our streams today can accommodate beavers. Many don’t have the right food growing there anymore, or there’s a road or homes in the way with no space for a beaver pond. There is a way, though, for people to sort of act like beavers — to help restore habitat by cutting down trees and putting them in streams.

There’s a whole state program devoted to this. It’s led by Jud Kratzer. He’s a fisheries biologist from St. Johnsbury. And he’s been doing these wood addition projects at streams throughout the Northeast Kingdom for just over a decade. The program started as a way toimprove brook trout habitat in the state. And it’s worked.

We visited one of these projects at a Wildlife Management Area in the town of Walden in early July. The stream here runs through what used to be farmland.

Jud Kratzer: (chainsaw sounds) So this is Rock Brook. … (chainsaw sounds) At this low gradient the wood really holds and performs well. It’s like the ideal gradient.

Lexi Krupp: Jud and his team will cut trees along the bank and position them to fall in the water, one on top of another to make a big, messy pile. At this site, it’s just two people working with chainsaws.

Sam Carter: We scope everything out and try to make a picture of what is going to work before we get started.

Sam Carter cuts down a tree in Walden, Vermont that will lay across the streambed as part of project to improve brook trout habitat. He’s been involved in this effort to improve stream habitat for the past 11 years.
Lexi Krupp
Vermont Public
Sam Carter cuts down a tree in Walden, Vermont as part of a project to improve brook trout habitat. He’s been working on these wood addition projects for the past 11 years.

Lexi Krupp: Sam Carter has been working on these wood addition projects in Vermont for 11 years.

Sam Carter: And it usually starts with identifying our finisher trees, our big trees that will hold everything down together. And we’ll start with, oftentimes, cutting a path for the first tree to fall in a small, tight canopy like this (fade out)

Lexi Krupp: Seeing Sam operate a chainsaw is like watching a master sculptor at work. He usually starts with a tree pole stuck in the water, then adds a bunch of filler trees from either side of the bank — almost weaving them together — and ends with a big tree to anchor the mess down – in this case, a yellow birch.

Sam Carter: It’s like a big gobstopper in the throat of the stream. It will help hold all that brush and that hardwood hopefully in one unit, and make an artificial wood jam

Lexi Krupp: The goal is that even after a big winter storm, this pile of logs and branches will stay put. It’s tedious, time-consuming work. The state is never going to be able to do this on a very large scale. But another big piece of this project is just getting across the message to the general public that wood is good for streams.

There is another way to manage for old streams that’s a lot easier to scale up, that will eventually lead to the same outcome.

Rudi Ruddell: It's one of those things. It's like, oh, yeah, planting trees, right? But trees do so many things.

 Rudi Ruddell is a scientist with the nonprofit White River Partnership. He along with others in the community plant thousands of trees along streams in Vermont after seeing Tropical Storm Irene.
Lexi Krupp
Vermont Public
Greg Russ stands on a floodplain along the White River in Bethel, where he and dozens of school kids planted trees several years ago. He's the restoration manager with the White River Partnership.

Lexi Krupp: This is Rudi Ruddell again, the scientist who had an epiphany after seeing a stream in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene. Every year he and his colleagues, along with school kids and other community groups, plant thousands of trees in Vermont. He says in the short term, those trees cool down streams by shading them, which is good for fish, and they help improve water quality by filtering runoff.

Rudi Ruddell: And I – and I feel like that's the thing with trees is like, I don't even understand half the roles that they play on the landscape. But I understand at some gut level, is that’s something I can give back to this landscape … and then they take it from there.

Lexi Krupp: He'll have to wait until next year to plant more trees, once the water recedes and floodplains dry out enough. Until then, he's hoping, wherever possible, that not all of the wood and sediment that Vermont’s latest storm dumped into our rivers and streams gets cleaned out. That we could learn to live with a little more messiness.




Thanks to Gus Goodwin of East Montpelier for the great and timely question.

This episode was reported by Lexi Krupp. Josh Crane edited and produced it, with help from Mae Nagusky. Our executive producer is Angela Evancie. Theme music by Ty Gibbons; Other music by Blue Dot Sessions.

Special thanks to Sophie Stephens, Mark Davis, Bill Keeton, Mary and Greg Russ, Ellen Wohl, Will Elridge, Skip Lisle, and Elizabeth Trail.

As always, our journalism is better when you’re a part of it:

Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public and a proud member of the NPR Network.

Flooding recovery assistance and other key resources

View or share a printable PDF version of these resources.

        Updated: July 21, 2023 at 12:01 PM EDT
        We've updated this post to include that Bill Keeton is a forest ecosystem scientist at the University of Vermont and added a link to his description of old growth forests.
        Lexi covers science and health stories for Vermont Public.
        Josh Crane is part of Vermont Public's Engagement Journalism team. He's the senior producer and managing editor for Brave Little State, a podcast based on questions about Vermont that have been asked and voted on by the audience, and runs Vermont Public's Sonic ID project.
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