River rebuild continues

Restoration work began Monday on the East Branch of the AuSable River near the Keene town beach, across the road from Marcy Field in the hamlet of Keene Valley.

It’s the latest project to restore parts of river in Keene since the town was hit by Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011. Last year work began on a 700-foot section of Gulf Brook. Before that were several different attempts to rebuilding Johns Brook and other AuSable tributaries blasted by Irene’s heavy rain.

The old wooden and concrete weir in Keene Valley, near the beach, was removed Monday and will be replaced with a weir made of local rocks and boulders.

The work is being conducted on a 200-foot area at the town beach. Willsboro-based construction firm Sheehan & Sons was hired to dismantle the weir. The restoration work is expected be completed early next week but could finish as soon as Friday.

Those involved in the project said the new weir will improve water flow and be better for the local fish habitat and more attractive to nature lovers. Once complete, the town beach section of the river is expected to look similar to the portion of Gulf Brook that was restored last year.

“It’s a much more natural-looking structure,” said Kelley Tucker, the executive director of the AuSable River Association.

Tucker was at the site Wednesday watching two excavators move boulders into place inside the river and on its bank. She said work crews removed things like rebar, concrete and nails when they tore apart the old weir.

The town has partnered with the Ausable River Association, Essex County Soil and Water, Trout Unlimited and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the beach project.

Town Supervisor Bill Ferebee said the Federal Emergency Management Agency is paying for the project, which is estimated to cost around $60,000.

Dave Reckahn, district manager of Essex County’s Soil and Water Conservation District, said this portion of the river was hit hard by Irene. Recreating a natural weir is expected to make wildlife habitat more abundant, he said.

“It’s part of making the area more flood resilient and friendly to fish,” Reckahn said. “It will create some pockets of habitat in areas that were damaged.”

Reckahn described the old wooden and concrete weir as less efficient than the new one will be. He said the old weir made a barrier for fish passage and also blocked access for kayakers. The new, rock weir will be designed to slow the water through the area and allow for control of the water, but isn’t expected to block fish or kayaker access.

Tucker added that the swimming area will be kept cleaner by the natural weir and the space will be more open.

Despite two major restoration projects on the AuSable River in Keene, Tucker said that there are still others in need of work.

“We still have bank stabilization issues on the East Branch in sections of Keene,” Tucker said. “There are still scattered areas on the river itself that we still would like to see some bank stabilization done.”

Tucker said Irene exacerbated the problem, but she noted that river widening and bank failure was a problem even before the storm.

Ferebee said the town and its partners are beginning to plan the second phase of the Gulf Brook project in Keene, which could include the removal of Bucks Lane Bridge. Gulf Brook is located near Keene Town Hall and where the former firehouse building was located, before it was destroyed by flooding during Irene.

Phase two at Gulf Brook was awarded $3 million by the state last year. The plan is to continue restoring the river from Bucks Lane Bridge downstream to the AuSable River.

“This morning we just had the kick-off meeting for the remaining part of Gulf Brook,” Ferebee said Wednesday. “Hopefully we will finish up Gulf Brook in 2016.”