Sleepers River Research Watershed

Science Center Objects

The Sleepers River Research Watershed in Danville, Vermont has been the site of active hydrologic research since 1959, when the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) established a research program in the watershed. The Sleepers River site is now operated by the USGS, in cooperation with several other Federal agencies and universities. 

Early studies by Thomas Dunne and Richard Black of the USDA ARS demonstrated the importance and controls of saturation‐excess overland flow on streamflow generation. These early studies helped to guide subsequent methods of hydrologic research in the watershed, which have evolved considerably since the early studies.  For example, the early studies relied exclusively on hydrometric measurements, wheras today’s studies also include chemical and isotopic approaches to elucidate streamflow generation processes.

Application of these new approaches has advanced our hydrologic understanding in several ways, including: (1) confirmation of the importance of saturation‐excess overland flow to streamflow generation, and at larger scales than first imagined; (2) the realization that stored catchment water dominates stream response under most circumstances; (3) the finding that hydrometric, chemical and isotopic approaches to hydrograph separation yield consistent and complementary results; and (4) the insight that nitrate and sulfate isotopic compositions specific to atmospheric inputs constrain new water contributions to streamflow. 

USGS gage 01135300, Sleepers River near St. Johnsbury

The W-5 weir, USGS gage 01135300, Sleepers River near St. Johnsbury, at the Sleepers River Research Watershed, Danville, Vermont, looking upstream from the weir during an early snowmelt pulse. (Credit: Stephen Sebestyen, U.S. Forest Service)

Currently, an important focus for research at Sleepers River is stream transport (lateral transfer) of carbon, which remains a poorly understood flux within the global carbon budget. We are seeking to refine our understanding of both the provenance and transformations of dissolved organic matter (DOM) as it moves from mountains to the sea.  It is important to quantify shifts in carbon quality with increasing stream order (for example, during downstream transport from Sleepers River to larger streams and ultimately to the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound).   Advances in sensor technologies and computational capacity have made forecasting of DOM (as well as phosphorus and nitrogen) fluxes possible.  Our research aims to better understand these fluxes across scales and to develop predictive capability to provide early warning to resource managers when adverse conditions are developing.