Irene: Alarm sounds on stream repair

The photographs depict heavy machinery in the rivers of the Adirondacks, and streambeds that have be

The photographs depict heavy machinery in the rivers of the Adirondacks, and streambeds that have been flattened and smoothed, stripped of boulders and lined with small rocks.

“I’ve seen massive shovels and front-end loaders and backers working in small brooks and streams,” said Dan Plumley, a resident of Keene and partner in the environmental group Adirondack Wild. “They’re removing all of the natural features, taking large boulders out and grading the banks at a 45-degree angle. They’re dredging channels.”

In the wake of the flooding last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an emergency order waiving permitting requirements for emergency repairs needed in the wake of Hurricane Irene, “allowing community leaders and private landowners to directly respond to the need for waterfront, road and bridge stabilization, and emergency repairs.” The suspension of normal permitting requirements facilitated the rapid rebuilding of Route 73, the primary route from the Adirondack Northway to Keene Valley, and for fixes to other essential roads and bridges.

Fish habitat, flood worries

But environmental groups say they worry about the long-term impact of the cleanup on rivers and streams, as crews with no expertise in river management carry out projects typically done with the approval and oversight of state agencies. They say that in many cases rivers and streams are being rebuilt to resemble shallow drainage ditches, which could ruin trout habitat and increase downstream flooding. Boulders and large woody debris often serve as breaks on water speed; removal “will not give you the result you’re looking for,” Plumley said.

“We have to live with the rivers up here,” Plumley said. “We can’t turn them into ditches. We have to understand the rivers as a system. If you’re managing them with a backhoe from site to site, you’re going to have problems later on.”

Adirondack Wild, the Ausable River Association and the Adirondack Council want the Adirondack Park Agency and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to provide the crews working in the rivers with guidance and oversight. What’s needed, they said, is for someone with an understanding of river dynamics to weigh in on what’s going on.

“If you solve a problem quickly and sloppily without oversight, you might be causing enormous problems later on,” said David Gibson, a Ballston Lake resident and also a partner in Adirondack Wild. “You might be causing all sorts of grief downstream.” He said that bulldozing streams and flattening streams will increase runoff, erosion and downstream flooding, because removing rocks and vegetation will cause flood water to flow faster.

“You don’t ask environmental agencies to be there on just beautiful sunny days,” Gibson said. “They’re really intended to serve a broader purpose.”

Carol Treadwell, executive director of the Ausable River Association, wrote a short memo explaining why dredging will make flooding worse, not better. Among other things, dredging creates a flat-bottom channel “which actually slows normal flows, thus causing gravel and sediment deposits to build up in the channel. This creates a self-perpetuating maintenance situation where the channel has to be dredged continuously. Thus in the long term maintaining rivers through dredging costs communities more money.”

DEC’s role

Emily DeSantis, the assistant director of public information at the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said the DEC has had teams of staff in the field since the first week in September, and that those teams are working with municipalities, county soil and water conservation districts and the Army Corps of Engineers to assist with the proper restoration of streams and rivers.

“DEC is working with localities to repair the damage in a way that minimizes longterm harm to the environment,” DeSantis said in an email.

She said that in most cases DEC is issuing a general permit “with its protective requirements,” rather than an emergency authorization, and that DEC staff also inspects specific sections of streams if the agency receives a complaint. “DEC is currently reviewing the information gathered during the inspections to determine next steps to minimize any potential for long-term harm,” she said.

Union College professor of geology John Garver said that Plumley’s photographs of heavy equipment in Johns Brook in the Adirondacks made him sad.

In an email from the West Coast, Garver, who organizes the annual Mohawk Watershed Symposium, wrote that there is a “tendency to think that environmental regulations stand in the way of rapid restoration progress, and this may in fact be the case. But we need to be cognizant of the fact that this was an ecological disaster as well, and the watershed will take years to recover from the dramatic erosion, sedimentation and loss of mature habitat in the rivers and streams, as well as on the floodplains. On the floodplain in Burtonsville on the Schoharie Creek, I saw fish, turtles and other aquatic animals stranded and lifeless in the flotsam and jetsam following the floods. I can only assume, as have many others, that the damage to the aquatic ecosystem has been severe and profound.”

Johns Brook repair

He said the photographs of the channel restoration on Johns Brook “show heavy equipment reshaping the channel and moving sediment with no regard to benthic [river bottom] communities, which are the keystone of a healthy ecosystem.”

He said that key infrastructure, such as locks and bridges, need to be repaired immediately, but that a large number of creeks and channels in the river need to be evaluated for possible restoration, and that this sort of work should only proceed with the supervision of geomorphologists, who study the evolution and configuration of landforms, and hydrologists.

“Ecological recovery in the watershed will likely take years,” Garver said, adding that “we need to proceed carefully so that we don’t further injure an ecosystem that has seen tremendous damage.”

John Sheehan, a spokesman for the Adirondack Council, said dredging rivers will destroy trout habitat because the water will quickly fill up with sediment and become warmer, making it uninhabitable for the fish who live in colder water. “In order to have a viable fishery, you can’t have a river look like a road,” he said. “It has to be in a much more natural state, with pools and eddies and switchbacks.”

Sheehan said the governor’s order was never intended to be “blanket permission for bulldozers in the stream,” but that highway crews have interpreted it as such. “Unfortunately, in times of crisis people don’t always think clearly,” he said.

The Adirondacks depend on tourism, and that includes tourism derived from fishing, Sheehan said. “It’s not just the fish we’re worried about,” he said. “It’s the economy and the people living downstream.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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