Mad River: Beneath The Beauty, Environmental Challenges Threaten Waterway

Sep 11, 2018

Vermont has no shortage of beautiful rivers for fly fishing, but the trout that roam these waters are increasingly under threat from environmental challenges that aren't necessarily visible to the naked eye. 

VPR went fly fishing with Matthew Dickerson, a professor at Middlebury College who writes about a section of the Mad River in his new book, A Tale of Three Rivers: Of Wooly Buggers, Bowling Balls, Cigarette Butts, and the Future of Appalachian Brook Trout.

Dickerson has been fishing in a spot on the Mad River in Waitsfield for over 25 years. He says it looks much the same as it always has — but that’s on the surface. If you look a little closer, you’ll see that Mad River faces increasing environmental challenges.

“Sometimes the kind of the pretty pastoral landscape does tend to hide some of the problems,” says Dickerson.

Over the years, he says, the river has taken on higher levels of phosphorous and elevated bacteria levels from things such as E. coli and fecal coliform.

“Sometimes the kind of the pretty pastoral landscape does tend to hide some of the problems.” — Matthew Dickerson, professor and author

Dickerson says the greatest environmental impact comes from development, such as agricultural runoff and tourism development. He also notes that the local ski industry has caused a loss of tree canopy, which can increase the amount of pollutants that run down paved roads and residential driveways into the river.

“You've got driveways, you've got culverts, you have all that sort of infrastructure and that's all adding to the amount of runoff and pollution that would flow into the river,” says Dickerson. Loss of tree canopy can also increase the temperature of river water, making it less habitable for wildlife.

So that’s exactly why Dickerson comes out here in search of trout, and why he writes about the fish:

“The trout on the rivers where they live really are great indicators of the health of a watershed,” he says.

Many of us share a connection with a river, lake, stream or pond. Throughout the summer, listen to VPR to hear personal stories from Vermonters about how bodies of water around the state affect their lives, and how they've seen them change over time. Tweet @vprnet to share your favorite bodies of water in Vermont.