On a recent summer morning, a deer cut across the Schoharie Creek, stepping across the rock-strewn stream bed to the opposite bank. A great blue heron soared overhead, while a flock of Canada geese floated on the surface of a glassy pool.
Since last year’s flood, life has returned to the waters of the Schoharie Creek.
People are catching walleye and smallmouth bass, and turtles have been spotted sunning themselves.
Less apparent to the naked eye are the river’s resurgent bugs and creepy-crawlies — more properly its “benthic macroinvertebrate population.” The term refers to small organisms that lack a backbone, such as insects and spiders. Some of these, such as storm flies and mayflies, will only thrive in clean water that’s high in oxygen, and these insects have come back to the Schoharie Creek.
“The creek is coming back nicely,” said John McKeeby, executive director of the Schoharie River Center. The organization in Burtonsville monitors the water quality of the Schoharie Creek and provides educational and cultural programming. “We’ve seen a lot of mayflies. I’m surprised. I didn’t think we’d see them so fast. We’re seeing more birds back. We’ve seen bald eagles.”
Last year, devastating flooding caused the creek to turn the color of chocolate milk, a muddy, highly turbid state caused by the stirring up of sediment and other debris, including sewage.
Today, the water is clear again.
The river bottom is visible, and rocks, sticks and other material can be seen beneath the surface. In many areas, the water quality is just as good as it was before the flood, and in some cases it’s even better. Though the flood reduced the bug population, by mid-October that had returned to normal levels.
“The natural environment is recovering,” McKeeby said. “Streams are natural systems. A flood is a natural event.”
Still, McKeeby said that there remain a few subpar pockets of water, mainly in badly damaged areas such as Blenheim and below the Gilboa Dam.
“There are areas where there hasn’t been as much work done, as much cleanup of flood debris, and the water quality still has a way to go,” he said. Some damaged houses have been mostly left untouched and their septic tanks remain, leaking into the water.
McKeeby said that some small life-forms can live in dirtier water, and that the more polluted pockets of water in Blenheim have been attracting scuds — a shrimp-like animal that feeds on decayed plant material and isn’t normally found in the creek. In these polluted pockets, the critters that are indicators of good water quality are largely absent.
“I’ve never seen scuds in the Schoharie Creek up until now,” McKeeby said. “We’re finding them in large quantities.”
As to why the water quality in some areas of the creek is better than it was pre-flood, McKeeby said that it was unclear and warrants further research.
The Schoharie River Center tests for water quality in four places: at its headquarters in Burtonsville, the Gilboa Dam, Esperance and Central Bridge.
On the Schoharie Creek, the turbidity levels after Irene and Lee were the highest ever recorded, McKeeby said.
In the aftermath of last year’s flooding, huge piles of debris cluttered the Schoharie River Center’s 20 acres, many of them more than 10 feet tall. Jagged scraps of roofs and walls trapped high in trees provided visual evidence of just how high the floodwaters rose. Walls and doors ripped from neighbors’ houses, some located several miles away, were tangled in uprooted trees, limbs and plants, and clothing dangled from branches.
During walks through the property, McKeeby often stooped to pluck photographs from the mud; he brought these photos to a nearby fire station so that flood victims could look at them and take what was theirs.
A year later, most of this debris has been removed.
Badly damaged sections of trail have been covered with wood chips created from downed trees recovered from the property, and the nature preserve’s extensive network of paths have been cleared. Many trees were battered by the flood but survived and ferns that were buried under sand last fall have come back.
After the flood, contractors stripped the riverbank of vegetation while removing trees and other debris from the creek, and volunteers spent spring and summer replanting the area with a mix of trees — black locust, cranberry, dogwood and sedge — and shrubs. Herkimer County BOCES donated 6,000 willow stakes to the Schoharie River Center, and about 3,000 have been planted.
McKeeby said vegetation is important because it can mitigate the effects of flooding and pollution by absorbing and slowing the flow of water.
Last fall, officials expressed concern about runoff as a result of the storm.
Schenectady County Public Health Services urged all residents to use caution when dealing with floodwaters, saying that “floodwaters may be contaminated with infectious disease agents and chemicals.” But they also said that the pollution would likely dissipate quickly because of the large volume of water and the speed with which it was moving downstream.