I believe that the state Department of Transportation is going way beyond Governor Cuomo's intent when he made his announcement to temporarily suspend Department of Environmental Conservation and Adirondack Park Agency permits to address the emergency needs of rebuilding roads and bridges. He didn't say to the DOT that it also had a green light to reshape nature while it was at it and destroy the $4 million local fishing industry.
The governor got the message on the need to save the economy, which meant opening up routes 73 and 9N. Tourism is the vital engine of the economy, and nearly all visitors come up here to experience nature - not rivers turned into channels - which includes not only people who fish but who take photographs, paint scenes of nature (the founders of Keene were the Hudson River School artists), tube down the river and hike. The DOT is driving a tractor right through that experience and an important aspect of the economy. What's the point of opening the roads if DOT destroys the purpose and character of the very attractions people come here to see?
I strongly agree with Jay Department of Public Works Director Chris Garrow's concern for public safety, but my feeling is that the DOT's excavation work in the East Branch of the AuSable and such tributaries as Roaring Brook and John's Brook should give him heightened concern, as turning rivers into channels is likely to cause far greater hardship for the town of Jay and its hamlets than simply restoring the course of the rivers.
An excavator is used to dredge Gulf Brook in Keene less than 100 feet upstream from its confluence with the East Branch of the AuSable River, with no silt controls or capture.
(Photo — Dan Plumley, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve)
Fundamentally straightening out the river channels and removing all the large boulders and all of the trees, as the DOT currently is doing, will remove the natural brakes in a river and speed up the flow of the water, as will preventing rivers from overflowing into flood plains. That faster water will erode banks at a much quicker rate, as they have been doing at Rivermede Farm since the flood of '96, and result in an increased volume of water hitting Jay and AuSable Forks with even more terrible results.
The reality is that rivers have a history of snaking back and forth across a valley; therefore, to a certain extent, we need to learn how to live with such a natural phenomenon. The reality also is that some houses should not be rebuilt where they are currently located or, if they are to remain, be jacked up 2 to 4 feet higher so that floodwaters do not damage their first floors. At the very least, homes in flood plains should be required to raise their propane tanks, hot water heaters and electrical boxes above the flood line, and no other hazardous waste, such as junked cars, should be stored in flood plains, as per Federal Emergency Management Agency regulations.
The first floors of houses located in a flood plain should not be allowed to use insulation like fiberglass and cellulose, fiber which is easily damaged when wet and leads to mold. Instead they should be required to use closed-cell insulation in such areas. These and other safety precautions will help reduce the amount of toxins that flow into the hamlets of Jay and create hazardous situations for emergency crews and homeowners, in this case twice this year.
Further, it is vital to keep in mind that the DOT's actions are destroying wildlife habitat, most especially that of fish, as fishing is an import source of income for many businesses along our rivers. I am not suggesting that we do nothing but that we work with the DEC and other experts to find a path forward that addresses both our human and environmental concerns. I am mindful that many along the rivers are living in a state of shock after being hit by a 100- and a 500-year flood within a half-year - all the more reason to do everything we can to get it right so they are not overwhelmed when the next flood comes, as one surely will.
The reality of global warming is that we should expect such disasters more frequently, which is all the more reason to bring together the best minds we have and develop and implement actions that hold the best promise for long-term solutions. We need to remap the flood plains to take in contemporary patterns and, to the best of our ability, plan for what the future may have in store. As a consequence, I call upon the DOT to stop work in the rivers immediately and on the DEC to pull together a combined planning team that includes vested interests to develop a shared action plan within 30 days.
Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley and is a columnist for the Lake Placid News.