Attendance reflects the reservoir’s allure
Summer lasted well into October this year, and it extended the busy season at the 850-acre Waterbury Reservoir.
Waterbury State Park often reported its parking lot was full on sunny days.
Little River State Park had more than 41,700 visitors — a 10 percent increase in overall use from 2016, boosted by new bike trails and upgraded campsites.
Waterbury State Park had just over 37,800 visitors to its day-use area, down 18 percent from 2016’s record 46,000. In total, nearly 80,000 visitors were logged in at the reservoir’s parks during the summer, not counting people who used access points that aren’t staffed.
The parks have five access points, several unstaffed, so those people and boats aren’t counted toward the total, but “anecdotally yes, we have seen an increase in usage, always dependent on weather,” said Chad Ummel, the reservoir’s “floating ranger.”
Summer was cold and rainy to start, and in June the reservoir had to close briefly when rainfall pushed the water level too high, but unexpected warmth in October boosted the overall numbers, Ummel said. The state parks actually extended their closing date to Oct. 10.
There was also an overflow effect: “When Lake Champlain has algae blooms, for instance, we do note that we receive more usage,” as when North Beach in Burlington had to be closed this summer, Ummel said.
Three years ago, the state government took over management of the remote campsites along the reservoir, and have been tracking the numbers of campers who visit. The sites are available only on a first-come, first-served basis.
“There was an initial transition because people have been camping on the reservoir for 80 years with virtually no regulation, no oversight, and there was a little bit pushback initially,” Ummel said. “But we found that most people have been quite appreciative for the state’s efforts, the composting toilets, just the presence on the water and overseeing has made for a more tranquil and enjoyable experience for most.”
Most campers seem to be Vermonters, Ummel said, but other New Englanders who have heard about the remote campsites often stay overnight.
“Once it became summer, it became nice,” said Chuck Hughson, co-owner of Waterbury Sports.
The store opened two years ago in Waterbury, and Hughson says added bike paths in Little River State Park and Perry Hill have definitely attracted more people to mountain biking, he said; the numbers show in his bike-rental business.
“More people are going out with their friends and realizing they can do it too,” Hughson said.
There was no break between fishing and hunting season at the Fly Rod Shop in Stowe, manager Parker Wright noted. “Lots of people come in looking for gear saying ‘Hi, I’m going down to the reservoir,’” he said.
The shop was much busier in October than in years prior, probably due to the weather, Wright said.
There were also lots of people getting out on the water in boats, canoes, kayaks, or on stand-up paddleboards.
“Waterbury Reservoir continues to be a tremendous resource for people to go paddling on,” said Steve Brownlee, owner of Umiak Outdoor Outfitters.
“One of the benefits that we have seen is more people renting boats late in the season. We had terrific warm temperatures in the months of September and October. But the other big difference is the new regulations for keeping the water level high is something new in the last two summers,” Brownlee said.
At the end of 2015, the state decided the Waterbury Reservoir should be maintained at its summertime levels year-round, at about 590 feet above sea level.
In the past, the reservoir was drained every fall to between 540 and 560 feet above sea level, making room for spring runoff, then restored before summer. Now, water flow through the dam is managed to more closely match the natural flow of the Little River.
Exhausted after playing all day, visitors headed into town, and businesses in Waterbury continue to see growth.
“The bars and restaurants love the increased traffic from people enjoying the trails and reservoir,” said Alyssa Johnson, Waterbury’s economic development director. “The activities feed off each other well. There’s nothing better than good food and a cold beer after a day outside.”
“The Waterbury Reservoir is unique. It is a true multi-use body of water where nearly everything is allowed from innertubes to seaplanes,” Ummel said. “So it’s a fascinating scope of use where you get to see people on stand-up paddleboards, and jet ski circles around them. It’s an exciting body of water.”