Regulation is tricky, but so is the lack of it, especially with extraordinary circumstances such as those in the Adirondacks after Tropical Storm Irene.
On one hand, towns have faced big, one-time jobs to protect their people from future flooding. Raging flood waters rerouted the AuSable River and its tributaries. Trees, rocks and dirt were piled in places that will probably collect more of same - as well as ice chunks during spring breakup - and those masses are likely to clog the waterways, flooding populated areas. We've seen this happen time and time again, especially in the town of Jay, but it may be worse this coming spring.
The town can prevent such a scenario by removing that debris before the snow comes - which means really soon. The normal environmental review process is too slow to prevent those floods. It's designed for less urgent matters. (Even then it's often too much bureaucracy, but that's another editorial.)
In that light, Gov. Andrew Cuomo's suspension of environmental permitting two days after Irene has been a major opportunity to make the river not only as safe as it was before Irene but much safer than in recent memory.
But while all that might work in theory, in practice there have been huge problems. The governor's leeway has let state, county and town crews do irreparable harm to some once-natural brooks in the towns of Keene and Jay. Our Adirondacks are New York's greatest haven for wild things like these, and they are incredibly valuable to all of our livelihoods.
We are encouraged that Essex County Soil and Water Conservation District Manager David Reckahn, who is charged with overseeing some of the work, says the goal is to put pools and rapids into streams to create habitat for trout, put woody debris in the water and revegetate the shorelines. But we are discouraged by his admission that he isn't able to give it enough oversight - even now, a month after the storm - and that bulldozer and excavator drivers are mostly making the decisions on their own. Those workers can't be expected to know what to do so fish and other creatures will come back, and they have moved forward without advice by environmental conservation experts who do know.
We don't know what will become of these waterways in the future, but we do know places like John's Brook in Keene Valley look pretty horrible right now.
Also absent from the river work were engineers, which means we aren't confident that the sculpting of the rivers and brooks will actually prevent future flooding. Could it only speed up the water and have it slam downstream areas harder than ever? Who knows? The decisions were apparently based on locally informed guesswork rather than physics. We hope for the best.
When rules are lifted and you suddenly have freedom to do something your own way, that doesn't mean you should. Most rules exist to make people follow best practices. Maybe some are too forceful and should be recommendations instead, but still, people ignore them at their own risk.
In our view, no Adirondack resident really wants to replace rivers and brooks with ugly, urban canals devoid of fish habitat, just like no one wants people's homes to get flooded again. Some people focus more on protecting the natural world, and others make protecting people and their property a higher priority. These are role players in society rather than enemies. Different people watch for danger signs on different fronts to warn those who steer the ship of society.
Meanwhile, the rules return to normal up here next Saturday, Oct. 8.
We hope to see more collaboration on post-Irene river work than we've seen so far. We hope that will be the result of Jay town Supervisor and Essex County board Chairman Randy Douglas' recent outreach to Gov. Cuomo. Finally, we hope to see Mr. Reckahn's goals come true so the AuSable and its tributaries can at least resemble their natural state.