Little Otter Creek

Addison County River Watch Collaborative


Linden leaves over Little Otter Creek in Ferrisburgh. Photo by Matt Witten

 

Little Otter Creek Watershed

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Overview

Little Otter Creek is a lowland river in the Champlain Basin with three major branches. Little Otter Creek drains 73 square miles and the relatively short and sprawling stream is approximately 25 miles in length. Little Otter Creek begins in Bristol and flows through New Haven, Monkton, and Ferrisburgh before entering Lake Champlain. Little Otter Creek Wildlife Management Area is a state-owned parcel of almost 1500 acres near the mouth of the creek in Ferrisburgh where the Little Otter’s water level is naturally regulated by Lake Champlain, creating a rich diversity of aquatic plants.

Water Quality

Since the Addison County River Watch Collaborative began monitoring Little Otter Creek in 1997, it has recorded somewhat elevated E.coli, turbidity, and phosphorus levels. Classified as a cold-water Class-B stream, the lower reaches of Little Otter show characteristics more like a warm-water, marshy “slang”, as two branches of it are called by locals.

Little Otter Creek is listed by the State of Vermont as impaired for aesthetic reasons, aquatic life support, and contact recreation as a result of agricultural runoff and high E. coli counts from nine miles upstream to its mouth. It is also listed as impaired for aquatic life support from mile 16.4 to mile 15.4 as a result of agricultural runoff.

“Aquatic life support,” says Addison County River Watch Coordinator Matt Witten, “Refers to the critters – like tiny crustaceans, worms and insect larvae – that support the entire food chain that exists in a healthy stream.” When algal and bacterial growth increase in a stream due to excess nutrient inputs, many of these organisms, most of which are invertebrates, cannot survive and therefore cannot support fish or amphibians. This, in turn, could lead to further ecosystem degradation, causing negative impacts on the birds, reptiles and mammals that depend on the smaller animals for food.

baby snapper by Mark Hekkers crop 2014

Baby snapping turtle found by volunteer river samplers on Little Otter Creek. Photo by Mark Hekkers

 

 E. coli counts in Little Otter Creek consistently exceed the Vermont State Standard, increasing downstream to Middlebrook Road (LOC7.8), and then decreasing slightly to Route 7 in Ferrisburgh (LOC4.3). This pattern parallels both turbidity and phosphorus concentrations, and may reflect a need for improved farm management practices.

Phosphorus concentrations are high in Little Otter Creek as well as its tributary Mud Creek, reflecting erosion and agricultural runoff. Phosphorus transported by suspended sediments from erosion and runoff, and dissolved phosphorus from farms in need of improved management, increase downstream during periods of high flow.

For years 2010 and 2011, the Little Otter Creek watershed was the subject of focused monitoring, including a flow study to evaluate nutrient and sediment loading. Water quality data were used to calculate coarse estimates of phosphorus loading on a subwatershed basis as a means of prioritizing restoration and conservation efforts within the watershed.

Regional, state and federal partners (NRCS, Ducks Unlimited, Vermont Land Trust) are making use of these data with a focus on lands that drain to the creek north of Plank Road and east of Monkton Road. Conservation easements and Wetland Reserve Program projects are being implemented where landowners are willing. UVM Extension and Vermont Agency of Agriculture are also referencing ACRWC water quality data as they work with farmers in the watershed, including Large Farm and Medium Farm Operations, to implement improved agronomic practices such as livestock exclusion, cover cropping, increased buffers, and incorporation of manure.

Recreation

There is good fishing along the lower Little Otter Creek for warmwater species such as smallmouth and largemouth bass, yellow perch, brown bullhead, northern pike, black crappie and chain pickerel. The brassy minnow is an uncommon small fish occurring here. Access by boat is via the put-in on Hawkins Road near the causeway.

 

This is an excellent birding site for wetland species such as rails, pied-billed grebes, common moorhens, bitterns and herons. Rare least bitterns and black terns have been spotted here. Ospreys have several nests on the Creek. Upland game birds present are ruffed grouse, wild turkey and American woodcock. Many species of waterfowl both breed here and migrate through, including Canada geese, wood and black ducks, mallards, hooded mergansers, and green and blue-winged teal. There is also a full compliment of songbirds, especially those species that prefer to live near water.

http://www.vtfishandwildlife.com/library/Maps/Wildlife%20Management%20Areas/Essex%20District/Little%20Otter%20Creel%20WMA.pdf

History

Little Otter has, since prehistoric times, been a remarkably bountiful ecosystem. The mouth of this marshy stream was a favorite fishing and camping location for Native Americans. Local historians and authors Morris Glenn and Katherine Teetor wrote in their 2005 book, The Historic Thompson’s Point Fishing Ground, that even after local tribes moved to Canada during the Revolutionary War, they regularly returned to the mouth of Little Otter “In the summer to fish and gather rice and reeds well into the 20th century.”

Future Plans

The Addison County River Watch Collaborative will continue to monitor for E.coli, phosphorus (total and dissolved), total suspended sediments, and turbidity at these two sentinel sites. An increased number of parameters and additional monitoring sites will be evaluated when a more intensive monitoring focus rotates back to the Little Otter Creek for a two-year period beginning in the year 2016.

ACRWC Contact

For more information, contact ACRWC’s Little Otter Creek Watershed Coordinator: Deb Healey, (802) 475-2944.

 

Addison County Regional Planning Commission | 14 Seminary Street Middlebury, VT 05753 | 802.388.3141 |

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