Some in Keene Valley cry foul over flooding

KEENE VALLEY – Some locals here are outraged with Tuesday’s flooding of Twitchell Brook, which they say was exacerbated by a recent river restoration project on the East Branch of the AuSable.

Lou Gregory of Holt Road, just off state Route 73, said something was different with the brook during Tuesday’s flooding than he ever saw before. He blamed the restoration project for raising the river above the level of the brook.

“This brook has always drained into the river there,” Gregory said. “It couldn’t get back in the river like it used to.”

The restoration, first planned in 1998 but not done until 2012, was led by U.S Fish Wildlife Service. Trout Unlimited, the AuSable River Association and the town of Keene were also involved. The work was done along Rivermede Farm property and encompasses 2,800 feet of river. The project’s goals were to stabilize the river’s banks, prevent erosion and downstream sedimentation, and improve the habitat for fish. The process created a “natural stream design” by mimicking a stretch of the AuSable that is stable. The project was approved by the state Department of Conservation and Adirondack Park Agency.

The braided channel was turned into a single stream. A weir was added to the river, as were boulders to facilitate fish habitat. Twichell Brook runs under both Holt Road and state Route 73 and connects with the AuSable on a bend in the river.

In the deepest parts of the flood Tuesday there was about 3 to 4 feet of water on Holt Road. The water affected homes close to the brook and caused the road to be closed, but it did not cause noticeable property damage. The homes near there are located on a flood plain. Some of the residents of Holt Road self-evacuated Tuesday during the flood. By Wednesday, the flooding on the road had subsided and it was reopened. Large puddles were still visible along the side of the road.

Town of Keene Supervisor Bill Ferebee and some local residents said Tuesday’s flooding on the road was caused by the restoration project. They said that concern was expressed to U.S. Fish and Wildlife when the work took place.

“It was an interesting project, it looked good on paper, but it isn’t functioning properly,” Ferebee said.

Gregory, who is Ferebee’s father-in-law, said he hasn’t seen it flood this badly on his road since Tropical Storm Irene on Aug. 28, 2011.

“They were foolin’ with Mother Nature and had no business doing it,” Gregory said. “Tell them it’s got to be fixed. It’s unfair for the people living here.”

Another Keene Valley resident, Matt Porter, saw the flooding on the road Tuesday and said it was about as bad as what he saw during Irene, and he, too, blamed the river restoration work.

Carl Schwartz, a biologist and program coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife, oversaw the restoration and said the claims that it caused Tuesday’s flooding are unfounded.

“That’s a normal reaction, I guess,” Schwartz said. “Anytime any work gets done and something happens, it’s obviously the fault of the work that was done. It’s generally not the case. … There’s a lot of things that’s happened before that people haven’t seen before.”

Schwartz said changing that section of the East Branch from a braided channel to a single stream improved the river’s ability to carry sediment and therefore would lessen flooding. The cause of Tuesday’s flooding was most likely from a combination of rain and snowmelt, he said.

“I haven’t been up to take a look,” Schwartz said. “But what typically does happen is when you get a lot of snowmelt and water that gets through there, it’s not going to fit in the channel.”

Ferebee said in a phone interview Tuesday that claims that more rain than normal caused the flooding are “BS.”

Dave Reckahn with Essex County Soil and Water Conservation was also a part of the restoration project. He was aware of the local outrage and is looking into the cause of the flooding.

“What happened was, it’s just one of those things, everybody sees things a little bit differently,” Reckahn said.

Reckahn said erosion from Irene changed where Twichell Brook empties into the river.

“I guess what is happening is the brook’s backing up because of the storm,” Reckahn said.

Schwartz also said changes to the river from Irene could be the cause, but he noted that the homes are on a flood plain. Either way, he said, the river captured that tributary before the restoration project was completed.

“If you go on Google Earth and look at old photographs, you can see that tributary used to go out further and drain down,” Schwartz said.

Gregory said he has been a critic of the restoration since it began, telling the workers at the river their efforts wouldn’t work. He said if another storm like Irene rolled through Keene Valley, his property would be destroyed.

“They’ve got to put it back the way it was,” Gregory said. “There’s no excuse for it.”

Ferebee agreed with Gregory, saying the weir should be taken out.

“What it did, when they put that weir in there, it caused the river to increase depth,” Ferebee said. “It doesn’t allow that little tributary to empty out as it did before.”

Reckahn said the weir was recently lowered and that he would study aerial photos to look into how the brook exited into the river in the past.

“If it is indeed causing more water to go onto that property, we are going to have to look at ways to do (fix) it,” Reckahn said.

Reckahn disagreed with Ferebee and Gregory that the river level is higher.

“I don’t know how they are figuring it’s a higher level,” Reckahn said. “It’s the same.”

Ferebee said that just because the restoration, in his opinion, turned out bad and needs to be fixed, that does not mean he isn’t thankful for the project’s intentions.

“I want to make it clear we are very, very thankful for whatever they’re trying to do for us, helping with the river,” Ferebee said.

Schwartz said a possible solution is to move the brook’s channel, but that could affect homeowners downstream and would need to be researched. U.S. Fish and Wildlife will be back at the river in June to examine it when water levels are lower, he said.

“What I’d like to impress is, everyone is entitled to their opinions,” Schwartz said. “The facts, however, should guide our decisions.”


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