All water in Putney, and indeed the entire planet, moves from the atmosphere to the earth and back again through a process called the water cycle. Sunlight hitting the surface of the ocean causes water to evaporate into the air. This moist air rises, cools and condenses into those lovely pillows in the sky, the clouds. Winds transport the clouds around the globe to places like Putney, and the moisture is returned to the earth’s surface in the form of rain and snow.
From here the water may do one of four things: it may evaporate directly to the atmosphere from the ground or from the surface of plants; it may filter into the ground, be taken up by plants through their roots, and then evaporated to the atmosphere in a process called transpiration; it may flow as runoff along the earth until it joins a river or stream and empties into the ocean; or it may infiltrate into the earth to become groundwater, and eventually discharge through underground streams back into the ocean where the cycle begins anew. The same atoms of hydrogen and oxygen that make up water have been on earth for billions of years, and a single molecule of water may take several thousand years to move through the whole cycle.
Looking locally, Putney is part of a large, regional basin known as the Lower Connecticut-Mill Brook Sub-basin. Included in this sub-basin is the Bellows Falls to Vernon Dam Watershed, which straddles the Connecticut River and drains surface waters from nearby towns in both Vermont and New Hampshire. Almost all of Putney, excepting the southwest corner, falls into this watershed. Within Putney, there are seven major drainage systems. Fullam, Chase and East Putney Brooks drain the eastern parts of town. Sacketts Brook is the dominant waterway running north-south through the town center, and Houghton, Canoe, and Salmon Brooks receive waters that flow through the western lands running off of the hills leading up to Putney Mountain. It is estimated that in concert the waterways of Putney have a total network of more than 35 linear miles!
It is amazing to contemplate how much water moves through the landscapes we inhabit. On average, southeastern Vermont receives about 44 inches of rain a year. Let’s consider how that translates into liquid quantities by examining one parcel of public land, the Putney Central School Forest. With its 176 acres of wooded upland and open meadow, those 44 inches of captured precipitation that fall on the ground in the form of rain and snow yield roughly 93 million gallons of water that annually drain off the property southward into the Connecticut River, and eventually dump into Long Island Sound. That is over 1000 times the volume of water in the Putney Town Pool. Imagine, then, the colossal quantity of water that flows across the Putney landscape as a whole!
Though easy to take for granted, it is worth remembering that a surplus of water is a blessing that historically and at present drives many of the ecological, economical, and recreational elements that define Putney. From an ecologic perspective, Putney’s waterways are home to a broad assortment of aquatic and semi-aquatic animals such as fish, turtles, frogs, snakes, otters, beavers, and wetland birds. What’s more, together Putney’s rivers and streams, and minor hydrologic features such as ephemeral melt water streams, seeps, ponds, and springs, have a big impact on localized vegetation patterns. Where ready water sources are lacking, such as on the summit of Putney Mountain, the climate conditions are dry and not conducive to prolific plant growth. The moist gullies of hillside tributaries, on the other hand, are often flushed with a diversity of verdant ferns and wildflowers. In addition to helping shape the contours of the landscape, it is this abundance of water that molded the town’s early immigration and economy, powering mills along Sackett’s Brook and other small streams for grinding grains, producing textiles and sawing timber. Today these same water resources are essential for residential and commercial crop irrigation, water sports such as fishing and canoeing, and perhaps in the near future will once again be harnessed for the local production of hydroelectric energy.
Thus, in the very act of flowing across the countryside, we can see how water connects our daily lives and local landscapes to a global system. This river of association is at once awesome to behold and merits substantial consideration. Because water is part of the earth’s commons, the actions we take at home have potential to affect the well being of people and other creatures farther downstream and of generations yet to come. We have a moral responsibility to serve as good stewards who both manage well our own aquatic resources, and make thoughtful decisions that promote sustainable use of water in other regions of the globe.