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Friends of the Winooski River

posted Oct 17, 2014, 8:38 AM by Lyn Munno   [ updated Dec 11, 2015, 8:30 AM ]
Nearly one-tenth of Vermont’s land area drains into the Winooski River. The “Onion River” runs from Cabot to Colchester and connects the state’s capital with its biggest metropolis. Today’s river reflects decades of impact from development and agriculture. Fortunately an active “friends” group has been working hard since 1998 to help bring the watershed back to health and encourage sustainable enjoyment of the river.

Some consider the Friends of the Winooski a “large” watershed group, and that label certainly fits in terms of accomplishments, experience, and watershed area. But “large” is a relative term for a small state like Vermont. Like all of our state’s watershed groups, FWR operates on a shoe-string plus much donated work by staff and volunteers. Originally an all-volunteer group, the Friends now operates with two part-time staff and an eight-member board. The Friends stretch their limited resources by engaging a strong partner network and the many individuals who come out to help protect their corner of the Winooski River watershed. Frequent partners include state and federal agencies, other non-profits, and especially local organizations and entities such as town governments, schools, civic and volunteer organizations. 
Such a large and diverse watershed requires a diversity of programs and projects. Here is a sample of what the Friends have accomplished over the past few years.

  • Planted 13,500 trees and shrubs along the river and its tributaries; 

         Planting trees in a riparian buffer

  • Monitored water quality with volunteers in the headwaters, near Montpelier, and in Chittenden County; 
               Sampling for water quality 
  • Assessed physical river condition (geomorphic assessments) for 90 miles of the river and its tributaries; 

  • Mitigated stormwater runoff by installing bioretention facilities and rain gardens; 
              Installing a bioretention facility              Rain garden under construction

  • Conducted surveys of nearly 800 stormwater outfalls to identify pollutant sources and worked with town public works departments to eliminate those contaminants
              Checking for stormwater runoff
  • Improved stewardship through voluntary landowner actions including promoting permanent easements; 

  • Evaluated hundreds of miles of dirt road for sediment-laden runoff and worked with towns to address specific problems and improve their road maintenance practices; 

  • Connected the public to their river through an annual paddling Sojourn and improved access points; 
                 Plainfield Coop paddlers

  • Improved stream crossings to reconnect critical fish habitat; 
                       Culvert before
                            Culvert after

  • Organized annual volunteer river cleanups that typically mobilize30-40volunteers to remove 1-2 tons of trash from the river; 
                 River cleanup 2014 

  • Educated the public and students about a host of river issues including the importance of riparian protection, reducing stormwater runoff and avoiding development in the river corridor; 
                 Looking for river creatures 

  • Produced Living in Harmony with Streams: A Citizen’s Handbook to How Streams Work which is applicable statewide. 



                                            Ann Smith leads a river workshop
Since 2007, the Friends has been led by Executive Director Ann Smith. Ann grew up on a dairy farm in northern Wisconsin, earned a degree in finance and economics, and spent 15 years in health care software and consulting. In pursuit of a career more in line with her values, she returned to the University of Michigan for a Master of Science in Environmental Policy. Before moving to Vermont, she directed Watershed Programs for the Southeast Regional Office of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. Ann was one of the earliest advocates for Watersheds United and has donated considerable time to help make it a reality.

Shawn White, Friends project manager, has felt a deep connection with rivers since the age of 2 when her parents started taking her exploring along the willow- and aspen-edged streams in Colorado. Prior to joining the Friends, Shawn taught environmental science and biology at Norwich University, Green Mountain College, and the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, MN. She has been active in several environmental organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, Greening the Great River, and the Four Winds Institute, and is a member of the Montpelier Conservation Commission. She holds a Ph.D. in Botany from the University of Georgia and a B.S. in Biology from the University of Texas. Shawn lives with her husband in Montpelier where she enjoys gardening, playing classical piano, and introducing her two sons to the beauty of the natural world.

Watershed group leaders tend to focus on the work at hand rather than tooting their own horn, but here at Watersheds United Vermont we’re happy to do some tooting for them. FWR and its sister groups serve as critical links between policy-makers and the thousands of land-owners and river lovers whose practices ultimately determine the fate of our rivers. The least we can all do as Vermont citizens is to thank leaders like Ann Smith and Shawn White for their dedication, and maybe volunteer ourselves for their next project.