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Mud season comes early to some Vermont communities

A road covered in mud with snow on the side. There are deep ruts in the mud filled with brown, murky water.
Anson Tebbetts
An early thaw left Tebbetts Road in Cabot muddy on Feb. 11.

Vermont’s mud season — the so-called fifth season between winter and spring where thawing ice turns dirt roads into dangerous quagmires — came early this year amidst an unusually warm winter.

Increased global temperatures due to climate change and the naturally-occurring El Niño Southern Oscillation Event contributed to a uniquely warm winter, resulting in a much earlier thawing than usual.

Mud season is a problem every year in New England. Vermont, with its majority-unpaved roads, is especially prone to it, but no place with the conditions for mud season has it easy. The difference this year is the timing – it’s much easier to prepare for an event that happens around the same time each year, but this year Vermonters have already seen its effects.

‘People have to be careful’

In Duxbury, where 76% of roads are unpaved, road foreman Brian Gibbs said his team ended up using most of their gravel on road repair following a muddy period in December, not expecting more thaws before the end of the season. While crews were able to fix most roads before temperatures dropped again this week, Gibbs said, they’re hoping snow might fill in some of the remaining ruts.

“We don’t have much material left,” Gibbs said. “Our budget doesn’t start over until July, and we usually don’t start getting material until September, so people are going to have to be patient and let us do what we can do with what we got.”

‘This is a bit early’

Ben DeJong, the Vermont state geologist, lives on a dirt road in neighboring Waterbury, where 49% of roads are unpaved.

This is the second time this winter the road has become muddy, and in recent days the town road crew has been regrading daily, DeJong said.

“Typically, the roads tend to start getting bad slash impassable right around sugar season,” DeJong said. “So this seems weird. I mean, this is a bit early.”

Mud season is a large impediment to Vermont’s rural economy, which relies on unpaved roads, said Anson Tebbetts, the state secretary of agriculture.

“There’s commerce that’s going on behind the scenes, everything from delivering mail to picking up milk to sugaring. So back roads are really important to the rural economy. And when they become really muddy, there’s a lot of challenges with it.” Tebbetts said. “But as Vermonters do, they’re going with the flow.”

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Corey Dockser is Vermont Public’s first data journalist, a role combining programming and journalism to produce stories that would otherwise go unheard. His work ranges from complex interactive visualizations to simple web scraping and data cleaning. Corey graduated from Northeastern University in 2022 with a BS in data science and journalism. He previously worked at The Buffalo News in Buffalo, New York as a Dow Jones News Fund Data Journalism intern, and at The Boston Globe.