Rachel Elliott is a reporter with Community News Service, part of the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.
The pair of volunteers reach Lewis Creek just after sunrise in the summer, plastic bottles in hand. While one takes notes and plays lifeguard, the other wades out into the water, turns upstream and fills the bottles.
The one wading passes the bottles up to their buddy before scrambling back up the bank, careful to avoid slippery rocks and poison parsnip. The pair pack the bottles into a cooler, then head home.
That’s how it usually goes for members of the Lewis Creek Association, a local environmental group that has been working to protect and restore Vermont waterways since 1990. It does a mix of policy advocacy and on-the-ground restoration in and around streams — replanting riparian buffers, removing invasive species — especially its namesake, which stretches 33 miles through Addison and Chittenden counties.
The state says the work of groups like the Lewis Creek Association fills crucial gaps. Towns along the creek greenlight funding for the organization every year. But the association says it is struggling to maintain and grow its network of volunteers for some of its initiatives, putting its future at risk.
“Without our programs and general work, things would look quite different,” said Kate Kelley, the association’s program manager. Waterways would be choked with invasive species, riverbanks would be eroding into the creek and the state wouldn’t be able to track water quality throughout local watersheds, Kelley said.
Ten years ago, about 40 community members spent 300 hours volunteering in one of the group’s key programs to pull invasive plants out of a local bay, Kelley said.
Last year, she said, only eight showed up, and the group instead relied mostly on seasonal workers from a government program. Even then, the workers and volunteers combined could only muster up 172 hours of work.
The consequences of that trend could be felt on a much broader plane than the immediate area of the creek. Will Eldridge, an aquatic habitat biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, says the association and its work has given his agency vital support.
“In general, we … don't really have a lot of staff support, the capacity to do a lot of work,” Eldridge said. “And so we rely heavily on Lewis Creek Association to do that ... They're in the watershed. They are landowners. They live there, (and) that's really important for credibility and connections.”
The dynamic between neighbors is easier to navigate than that between locals and the state, he said. “We're at a different level. And so we rely heavily on watershed groups and partners to be that local voice in the community,” Eldridge said.
Those volunteers taking water samples with plastic bottles end up providing data that tells state scientists key information about how rivers look and move and the kind of habitat they provide for wildlife. The association and the state work together to identify restoration projects and decide which ones are most important, too.
And the association does a lot more than just collect data and decide on priorities. Take the invasive plant program that’s been losing volunteers, for example. It’s focused on freeing up waterways choked by the invasive European frogbit, a lily pad-like plant.
Before the program started 14 years ago, almost half of Charlotte’s Town Farm Bay was covered with the plants, the group says. Volunteers pulled nearly 50 tons of the invasive species out of the bay in just the first three years of the program. Now, frogbit only covers about 5% of the bay’s surface. That makes recreation better for people and habitat better for other plants and animals.
“Definitely the frogbit stewardship has been a wildly successful program and has significantly increased the water quality in the bays of Charlotte,” said longtime Charlotte Selectboard member Matthew Krasnow. “It's just an incredible work. The general advocacy for clean waters and the LaPlatte River watershed and the Holmes Creek and the Lewis Creek watersheds is almost entirely credited to the work that (the Lewis Creek Association) has been doing over these many years.”
That explains why Charlotte and Shelburne have both been regularly giving between $2,600 and $2,700 each year to the group since 2012 to support its work in the area, according to Kelley. The support goes beyond appropriations: After one of the group's founders, Marty Illick, and her husband, Terrence Dinnan, died in a waterway accident on the creek almost two years ago, Shelburne officials honored her work and life during a meeting. State legislators passed a resolution doing the same.
But that money can only do so much to bolster a group strained by an aging and shrinking circle of volunteers.
The core group of volunteers is getting older and less able to take on the grunt work that keeps the association’s programs going. And it’s struggling to recruit new volunteers, especially young ones.
“Just speaking for myself, I'm just not that into technology. I just don't do Facebook. I don't have an Instagram account. I don't understand what Twitter is. And yet that's how we need to connect with younger people,” said Andrea Morgante, the association’s founder and board president. “Younger people are, I'm sure, just as concerned about the environment ... I don't doubt that there's volunteers out there and there's people — it's just like there's this split between us old fogies and young people.”
One recent way association leaders have tried to mend that divide is by launching an account on Instagram with the support of UVM students. That’s on top of its more traditional recruitment methods: a website and accompanying newsletter and, of course, word of mouth.
Anyone can get involved, even if they don’t have the time or interest to get waist-deep in the creek.
“It's a nice antidote to a feeling of powerlessness that I think (as) citizens, we all have at various points,” said Louis DuPont, a longtime volunteer and association board member. “You look at the news and hear the news — it can be fairly overwhelming... It's a way to salvage a productive relationship to the world.”
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