Researchers study development impact on watersheds

Print More

(Host) If you compared two mountain streams, one near a ski resort and the other in the wild, what would you find?

Researchers at the University of Vermont have done just that and they’ve found big differences in the quality of the water and in the amount of water.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Scientists for years have measured the impact of logging on mountain watersheds.

But Beverly Wemple, an associate professor of geography at UVM, says there weren’t any studies on how resort development affects upland streams.

Wemple’s study analyzes data from 2001 to 2003, before a major expansion at the Stowe Mountain Resort.

Researchers compared the hydrology and water quality of Ranch Brook, which drains an undeveloped area on the east side of Mount Mansfield, with the West Branch, a stream that flows through the resort.

(Wemple) “And what we see from these watersheds is in the developed watershed is more run-off than we would have expected given the area.”

(Dillon) The run-off in the developed basin was 18 to 36% greater than in the more pristine watershed nearby. Suspended sediment – silt that flows into the stream – was two and a half times higher. The stream through the resort area also showed a tenfold increase in chloride, most likely from road salt.

The side-by-side comparison of the two streams suggests that resort development has a greater impact on stream hydrology than logging operations.

But Wemple says natural variability in the two watersheds may account for some of the difference in stream flow. And she doesn’t want the take-away message to be that resort development is bad for the environment.

She says that’s not what the study says.

(Wemple) “I don’t want the public to interpret this as let’s put the brakes on ski area development, because it’s an important component of our economy and our life in New England. So that’s not the intent of the study at all. And that’s not the way in which the wording in the paper goes either. Our interest is simply documenting what the conditions are so we can do a better job of planning for storm water management when we develop alpine areas.”

(Dillon) Jamie Shanley is a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey in Montpelier. He worked on the study with Wemple and says the difference in run-off probably can’t be explained by the development alone. He says they expected to see a 2 or 3% difference in flow, not an increase of 20 to 30%.

(Shanley) “Ours is the first scientific study at a ski resort in the Northeast U.S.. And we think it’s significant just in that respect. But our data really aren’t conclusive at this point to really pin an affect from development on the ski resort itself. We think we have a great baseline data set to look at the effects of this ski resort expansion.”

(Dillon) The Stowe Mountain Resort is undergoing a major expansion centered at the Spruce peak area. The researchers say they’ll continue their work, to get a solid before and after picture of the impact on watersheds.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

Comments are closed.