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Exploring the Deerfield Watershed

Reilly Osborne

Capstone Project 2020


About This Site

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Hello, my name is Reilly Osborne, I am a highschool senior from western Massachusetts, and I created this site to document my capstone project. My project focuses on the Deerfield watershed, this area is incredibly important to me; I've spent most of my life in this watershed, and I have had so many incredible experiences on the Deerfield. When it came time to design a capstone project, I knew I had to involve involve the Deerfield River in some way.

My capstone had two parts: the first was a research project with the Connecticut River Conservancy cataloging land usage throughout the Deerfield watershed, and then determining any correlation between the land usage and water quality of the surrounding river.

The second part of my project was attempting a source to sea trip of the Deerfield River. This had not been done in over 50 years, so I spent the beginning of the year mapping out my route, and spent the second half of the year preparing for the expedition. Sadly, due to Covid-19 I was unable to attempt the trip. I hope to try again next season, and if I am unable to do so, I hope the resources I have provided here will help another paddler accomplish this goal. 

If want to know more about my learning process and the formation of this project, click here to view my learning journal.


I have so many people to thank for helping me with this project, but I would like to take a moment now to acknowledge Bruce Lessels, Ryan O'Donnell, and John Schatz, without whom this project would not have been possible. Thank you!

In The Press

Water Quality

I was extremely fortunate to work with the Connecticut River Conservancy, a non-profit devoted to the health of the Connecticut river and its tributaries, including the Deerfield. With their help I was able to analyze previously obtained water quality samples from the Deerfield and its tributaries over the last several years. The CRC monitors the river for E. coli, Total Nitrogen (TN), Total Phosphorus (TP), Turbidity, and Conductivity. The data below was taken from four of the CRC's monitoring sites near Greenfield MA, Charlemont MA, Wilmington VT, and from the Green River where it crosses the VT/MA state line. To learn more about each monitored compound, use the interactive boxes below. 

Definitions are from the Deerfield River Watershed Association 2018 monitoring report, written by Ryan O'Donnell

E. coli


E. coli is a fecal bacteria that is found in digestive tracts of all warm-blooded animals, including humans. Most E. coli will not make someone sick, but they do sometimes cause illnesses in people. The presence of E. coli in water indicates the presence of human or animal waste. It is relatively easy to test for in comparison to other more harmful waterborne pathogens, so it is used an indicator organism to determine the level of risk associated with primary recreation contact (swimming and wading), or secondary recreation contact (boating). 

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Vermont, and Massachusetts standards for a single sample to be considered “safe to swim” is 235 E. coli organisms per 100 mL of water.

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Total Nitrogen



Total nitrogen (TN) tests for nitrogen in all its forms, including nitrate (NO3-), nitrite (NO2-), ammonium (NH4+), and as part of organic matter. Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for plants and can be found in the atmosphere as well as all living beings. It is also an important component of fertilizers. An overabundance of nitrogen in our waterways can contribute to eutrophication (overgrowth of algae) and anoxia (lack of oxygen) in saltwater systems, such as Long Island Sound. 

There is no numerical state standard for nitrogen in Massachusetts and the standard in Vermont is a very lax 5.0 mg-N/L of water. 

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Total Phosphorus

Total phosphorus (TP) tests for phosphorus in all its forms, including organic and inorganic phosphates (PO4-3). Organic phosphates are those that are bound to plant or animal tissue and formed primarily through biological processes, but they may occur from the breakdown of organic pesticides. Inorganic phosphates include orthophosphates, produced in natural processes and found in sewage, and polyphosphates, used in treating boiler waters and in detergents. An overabundance of phosphorus in our waterways can contribute to toxic algae blooms, eutrophication (too many nutrients), and anoxia (a lack of oxygen) in freshwater systems, such as lakes and ponds. A 'healthy' value is considered any level under 15μgP/L  

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Turbidity is a measure of how murky or cloudy water is. Clay, silt, finely divided inorganic and organic matter, algae, soluble colored organic compounds, and microscopic organisms all contribute to how turbid water is. Low and slow flows in streams tend to be less turbid while high flows after rain events are usually more turbid. Turbidity is a measured by the intensity of light scattered by particles suspended in a water sample. It is measured in nephometric turbidity units (NTU). Typically, low flowing, clear water has turbidity values of 10 NTU or lower.

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Conductivity (also known as specific conductance) is a measure of how well water conducts electricity. Conductivity is easy to test for and gives a broad look at potential water quality issues. It can be affected by the underlying geology and soil (ions dissolved out of rocks and soil), acid mine drainage (variety of metals and other contaminants), agricultural runoff (including nitrates and phosphates), and road runoff (automobile fluids and road salt). Sudden changes in conductivity could indicate a change in water quality. Conductivity is not in itself regulated but large fluctuations in values over time or between sites may be an indicator of a water quality issue not identified in other parameters.

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Land Usage

The Deerfield watershed is incredibly unique in the fact that despite its numerous towns and communities, it remains 66% forested, to the extent that even the subwatersheds of major cities like Greenfield maintain this level of forestry. I used the website to map out the land usage of the Deerfield watershed. Itree is a satellite imaging cite similar to google earth, which allows you to sample any number of random points from a specified location and define each point as you choose. I took 1500 data points and classified for the cover classes listed below. This was done partly out of curiosity, and also in order to study how land usage affects the water quality of the surrounding area.

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Land Usage x Water Quality

These results are not concrete, irrefutable facts. They are rather a prompt for further research and study. This data currently serves more as a hypothesis, and will hopefully be able to help the Connecticut River Conservancy to be more efficient and cost effective as they go about the 2020 monitoring process following Covid-19, which has prevented the gathering new data, cutting into the already limited sampling season.

70% is considered the minimum value for a cover class to have some correlation towards an increase in any element


It is my hope that in the future with further data collection and examination these results can become part of a larger project, and these correlations can become refined and credible statistics capable of influencing monitoring, land policy, and river cleanups. One specific possibility would be a study examining the sub-watersheds for the tributaries of Deerfield, confirming these correlations, and then using them to launch specific projects to improve the health of each tributary. It's incredibly important to remember that the health of any river is directly related to its tributaries. What someone does near a small stream in Vermont effects the Green River, which in turn effects the Deerfield, the Connecticut, which effects Long Island Sound, where the entire Connecticut watershed meets the ocean, and this polluted water causes parts of the Sound to become hypoxic over the summer. 

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Source to Sea

        The Deerfield River begins in a small pond in Vermont, located near Stratton. It travels over 80 miles before connecting with the Connecticut River, after which it travels another 120 miles to Long Island Sound. This 200 mile expedition involves portaging numerous dams, paddling 50+ miles of whitewater, and several miles of class V rapids. Suffice it to say this is not a trip for the faint of heart. In fact, there is no record of this trip being completed any time in the last 50 years.



         On the Gaia GPS interactive to the right, I have marked out a full float plan of the deerfield river, including major portages. 

Float Plan

Deerfield Leg:

Many sections of the deerfield will be rocky and shallow. There will also be several class III-IV sections, as well as an optional class V section. When choosing a boat, I would recommend a Jackson Nirvana, or similar 9ft whitewater racer. You could opt for a shorter boat like the Pyranha Machno, but I believe the longer boat is worth the extra weight in order to be faster and have more carrying capacity. The deerfield is mostly roadside, so you do have the option to either pack food and camping equipment in a drybag, or meet a support team to resupply/sleep on every day except day two. Aside from the first day, the average distance per day is just under 20 miles. You want to get to dam #4 as quickly as possible, once the water drops down many sections become unrunnable.


Day 1: 

Begin at Grout Pond (located near Stratton Vt) and paddle through a small, bony creek to the Somerset Reservoir. You can find an unofficial campsite on an island about ⅓ of the way across the reservoir, or camp along the shore. Check the Searsburg Gauge and Somerset Gauge before starting the trip. These sections are the crux of the trip from a water level perspective; the Somerset gauge should read 100 cfs at a minimum, and ideally have 200-300 cfs. The minimum for the Searsburg is 500cfs, but is much more fun at 1000. Ideally, put on towards the end of a large rainstorm with the Searsburg already at 500 or a close flow, and allow the river to rise to these levels overnight while you camp on the Somerset Reservoir. These levels should hold for 1-3 days, which is plenty of time to get through this beginning stretch. 

Day 2: 

Begin the day by paddling to the bottom of the Somerset Reservoir. There will be a small dam to portage. Paddle the Somerset stream to the Searsburg reservoir, portage another small dam, and paddle the Searsburg section to Harriman reservoir. 

Day 3: Paddle through the Harriman Dryway, a class III section, to the top of the Sherman Reservoir. If you need rest, take this as a light day. If you are looking for some fun, you can shuttle up the West Branch of the deerfield as you pass through Readsboro for a several mile class V detour.

Day 4: 

Paddle from Sherman Reservoir to dam #4. There will be several portages today, and you’ll be paddling through the recreational section of the deerfield. Please be respectful of other river users. All riverside property is roadside or privately owned. For camping either reserve a hotel/campsite, in Charlemont, or find somewhere to park a car.

Day 5: 

You’ll want an early start today, while there are no significant rapids, you’ll have the most portages of the trip. Paddle the deerfield to Hatchery Brook Campsite, located shortly after the Deerfield joins the Connecticut River in greenfield.

Connecticut Leg:

There are no major hazards, rapids, or portages on this section. I recommend swapping out your whitewater boat for a sea kayak or fast, comfortable flatwater model. My goal when planning this trip was to finish it as soon as possible, so I have spaced out four, 30 mile days with no rests. If you would like to reassess this to accommodate rest days or a more accommodating schedule, you can use this link to find other camping options along the river. You could also spend an extra day to rest at any camp site. On this leg of the trip you will want to pack your own food, water and camping equipment.

Day 6:

Hatchery Brook to Brunnels Marina (30 miles)

Day 7:

Brunnels Marina to King Island (26 miles)Rest day, pretty island campsite

Day 8:

King Island to River Highlands State Park (27 miles) ***available only after May 1st, reserve if possible using this link. If you are travelling before May 1st, go to Hurd State park, this is not ideal but it is the closest legal campsite, at 39 miles from King Island. On the bright side, this will make for an easy final day.

Day 9:

20-30 miles to Long Island Sound, depending on the campsite. Yay!

News and Events


Ryan O'Donnell: You were so kind and taught me so much about the river. Thank you for always taking the time to meet with me, sharing resources, and most importantly your contagious passion for the outdoors and our rivers.

Bruce Lessels: Thank you so much for supporting me and helping me grow as a paddler throughout the years and for all your help in planning out the source to sea trip!

John Schatz: Thank you for helping me structure and adapt this project throughout the year, and always pushing me to put in the extra work. You really helped me turn this into something that I can be proud of.

Thank you to the Academy at Charlemont, Zoar Outdoor, and the Connecticut River Conservancy for always supporting me and my project!


Please reach out to me with any questions, comments, or feedback.



Ryan O'Donnell

Bruce Lessels

2018 Deerfield River Watershed Association general report

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