Getting to Know the Watersheds of Vermont

Photo: Courtesy of Gail Lynch Memphremagog Watershed Association

Photo: Courtesy of Gail Lynch,
Memphremagog Watershed Association

It is astounding that the small state of Vermont has so many precious rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, and wetlands. Vermont has some 7,100 miles of rivers and streams alone. That’s more than twice the length of the United States. Vermont has 812 lakes and ponds, totaling over 230 thousand acres and storing about 80 percent of the State’s volume of water. There are 300,000 acres of wetlands – those fascinating wet habitats situated somewhere between land and deeper water that serve as sponges during rainstorms. Vermonters and our visitors love these waters. We situate our businesses, villages, and homes near them, and we enjoy fishing, swimming, and boating in them, as well as hunting, hiking, and biking along their banks and shorelands.

Each one of these backyard streams, ponds, wetlands, and lakes are found within Vermont’s four large “basins.” Basins are large watersheds — land masses that drain to a common waterbody – Lake Champlain, Lake Memphregagog, the Connecticut River, and the Hudson River basins. Our beloved Lake Champlain, the 6th largest natural lake in the country (right behind the five Great Lakes), drains over nearly half of the land mass of Vermont, totaling 8,000 square miles of land in Vermont, New York and the Province of Quebec. Some 230,000 people live in the Lake Champlain Basin, and the Lake itself is a drinking water source for nearly 200,000 people.

Vermont and New Hampshire share the banks of the 410 mile long Connecticut River – the longest river in New England. In fact, Vermont and New Hampshire share two thirds of its length! The Connecticut River Basin is over 11,000 square miles, nearly 4,000 square miles of which are in Vermont. The main stem of Vermont’s White River is the longest undammed tributary to the Connecticut River, making it vital for the long-term recovery of Atlantic salmon.

Lake Memphremagog in the State’s Northeast Kingdom is another beautiful Lake with a name derived from the Algonquian language meaning, “a big expanse of water”. This is 27-mile long lake, also shared with Quebec, drains nearly 700 square miles, most of which are in Vermont. Vermonters and visitors alike take part in Lake Memphremagog’s recreational and cultural events that include a distance swimming event, bass fishing competitions, and its place along the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Its tributaries are also renowned for its salmon and steelhead runs.

In the opposite end of the State are some of the headwaters to the Hudson River Basin. The Hudson River itself is 315 miles long, flowing to the Atlantic Ocean at New York City. Its basin drains over 16 thousand square miles, mostly in New York and New Jersey. The Vermont’s headwater streams include the Batten Kill – arguably the State’s most celebrated trout fishery – as well as the Walloomsac River that flows through the town of Bennington. 

The waters within each of these four basins are all different. The rivers flow in different directions, across varying landscapes to empty into different bodies of water. Nonetheless, they share one important feature – they help to create a sense of community in our towns. The towns and cities that are situated along the banks of the streams, rivers, lake shorelands, and wetlands have a special cultural connection to their local water body. Part of that connection is because of the historic and industrial uses of those waters. It is that history that inspires us to work together to steward these waters for our children and future generations to enjoy.