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A year of learning how to manage much-changed rivers

August 31, 2012
By MIKE LYNCH - Outdoors Writer ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

After Tropical Storm Irene hit the Adirondacks a year ago, public works crews were left with a massive amount of work.

The high waters washed out bridges and roads, blew out culverts and eroded riverbanks. At the same time, people living along the rivers were a bit shellshocked and feared that the state of the rivers left them vulnerable. The flooding was unprecedented for people who have lived there.

"They are calling for rain tonight, and I've got constituents in Keene Valley who are scared to death," Keene Supervisor Bill Ferebee told the Enterprise in late September 2011. "Now everyone is so gun-shy. They don't know what to expect."

Article Photos

Excavators move larger boulders into Johns Brook in December 2011, upgrading work done that fall to make more fish habitat and better prevent future flooding.
(Enterprise file photo — Mike Lynch)

That combination of factors led the state Department of Transportation and local public works crews to take their heavy machinery and get into the rivers as quickly as possible. The goal was to clean out debris, sediment and other materials that could clog the rivers during heavy rain in the months before winter or during the ice jams in the early spring.

To expedite the work for crews, Gov. Andrew Cuomo lifted many of the state Department of Environmental Conservation and state Adirondack Park Agency rules or as least streamlined the process for getting permits so the work could be done right away.

In late September, town of Jay Department of Public Works Director Chris Garrow told the Enterprise he'd never had to deal with more serious workload in his 28 years on the job.

"The AuSable River itself, it needs to have a serious look at because the whole river has been changed; the route has been changed in a lot of sites," Garrow said. "I have probably three or four sites in AuSable Forks that the river has changed dramatically. Now it's going to be pushing this water towards highways, towards houses. It's very much a concern of mine for spring thaw, ice jams, and as well as flooding in the future."

At first, this work didn't draw much criticism, but as the weeks went by and the machinery remained in the rivers and streams, it drew the attention of the environmental and sportsmen's communities. Many asked for greater collaboration between the environmental regulators and the public works crews, fearing the river's habitat for fish and other aquatic animals was being damaged.

About this same time, local officials were calling on state and federal agencies to provide expertise and funding to manage the rivers. All the dialogue led to a public meeting in AuSable Forks on river management. It was attended by about 100 people

Eventually, in December, the environmental oversight requests started to be granted, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, DEC and DOT worked together on a section of Johns Brook.

This summer, the groups continued to work together, looking for best river management strategies to guide them through the next floods. One of the strategies proposed came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Trout Unlimited, which spearheaded the completion of a more than decade-long project on the East Branch of the AuSable River.

The project utilized natural materials and called for restoring the river to its natural state. After the project was completed, public works crews from around the area, along with local officials and members of the public, were invited to view the site and learn about the methods applied. Whether the strategy is adopted and used more widely is still to be seen.

"It's a model," Ferebee said in late July. "It's the first time done in the AuSable River ... so it's really a test here."



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