As the cleanup work continues in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, public works crews are dealing with the task of having to restore Adirondack waterways that have been dramatically altered by the flooding in late August.
Town of Jay Department of Public Works Director Chris Garrow said he's 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."
Crews work on Styles Brook in the town of Keene to restore its pre-flood route.
(Photo courtesy of the AuSable River Association)
While Garrow is working hard to ensure public safety this coming spring, public works crews like his are also facing increased scrutiny from the environmental community, where people are concerned some of the work being done in waterways isn't being done properly.
"I understand the issues with having to reopen the roads and get commerce flowing again, but there seems to be a misconceptions in the towns that they got to get in (the rivers and streams) before Sept. 30 because they have permission to do whatever they want, wherever," said AuSable River Association Executive Director Carol Treadwell.
Treadwell said that although Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that state Department of Environmental Conservation regulations were suspended until Oct. 1, what actually happened is the DEC issued an emergency authorization that still carries conditions for work in waterways.
"There are still requirements you have to follow, and it doesn't remove the water-quality requirements of working in a stream," Treadwell said. "When people say there's no DEC oversight, there is in that emergency permit. But I think what happened is when Governor Cuomo gave the announcement that we're not going to require any APA-DEC permits, people got a little confused and said, 'There's no permit at all.' But there is an emergency permit."
Treadwell did say that one of the success stories so far has been with the town of Jay, whose workers listened to her suggestions while digging out a channel on Lewis Brook.
But in general, Treadwell said she's concerned about some work being done in the waterways because bulldozers can create channels that don't have the characteristics of natural streams, which can be detrimental to wildlife and actually result in more future flooding. In some cases, she's seen machinery create shallow, flat-bottomed streams where water will move slowly and deposit sediment, she said. On other occasions, she's seen channels straightened, which leads to faster currents and potential flooding downstream, she said.
She's named Roaring Brook, Styles Brook and John's Brook as places where the work may have been done improperly.
Garrow said DEC staff haven't overseen the work he's done, but they plan on visiting him today "to see that we're doing everything is being done properly and in place.
"They've just started (oversight)," Garrow said. "I think the activists are starting to raise a stink."
To this point, Garrow said he hasn't done any work in the AuSable River - that will start this week - but he has done some work in streams and tributaries to the river. Everything he's done is in the name of public safety, he said.
"I'm under the impression that we have a blanket permit to do what we want," said Garrow, who said he has a copy of the DEC emergency authorization.
The DEC, in a statement on its website, says emergency work in rivers and brooks must be "immediately necessary to address an imminent threat to life, health, property, the general welfare and natural resources." It says all work must be done in a "minimally invasive manner" and that non-critical work is not allowed.
The DEC's emergency authorization states that "any person performing emergency work must notify them as soon as reasonably possible to provide a description of the work being done." It then outlines a list or erosion, sedimentation and turbidity controls to use. Stream channel restoration "must conform to the pre-flood depth, width, gradient, and channel character, matching the stable stream channel upstream and downstream of the project area."
DEC Region 5 spokesman Dave Winchell sent the Enterprise a written statement Tuesday that said, "DEC sent a letter to every municipality in Region 5 explaining the governor's emergency authorization and DEC's general permit for non-emergency work for repairs to damages caused by Hurricane Irene. In addition, DEC staff made direct contact with municipalities in Clinton and Essex County, and all of the County Chairpersons in Region 5, to explain that teams of biologists and environmental analysts are prepared to visit problem sites and provide advice how best to repair the damages caused by rivers and streams in such a way as to minimize the potential impacts of future high water events."
Winchell wrote that "stream channels restored to stable pre-flood characteristics will help to minimize erosion and damage caused by future floods."
He said DEC Region 5 has had three teams of staff in the field since the first week in September 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 in Clinton and Essex counties. DEC staff have also inspected specific sections of streams that have been the subject of complaints regarding work. DEC is currently reviewing the information gathered during the inspections, he said.
In Keene, which also suffered serious damage, town Supervisor Bill Ferebee said he hasn't talked to any DEC officials about any work done in waterways, but they have been on site at projects and approved the work being done.
Like Garrow, Ferebee is most concerned about the public's safety at this point. He said the work needs to be done now and that changes can be made in the future, if necessary.
"I thoroughly agree with Carol," Ferebee said. "But unfortunately, right now we don't have the time, in my opinion, to allow for studies or funding to do this. It can be redone."
He said people who live near streams and rivers are feeling on edge.
"They are calling for rain tonight, and I've got constituents in Keene Valley who are scared to death," he said. "Now everyone is so gun-shy. They don't know what to expect."
For that reason, Ferebee and Jay town Supervisor Randy Douglas also want the DEC to inspect the length of the AuSable and its branches to see if any work should be done to remove debris to prevent future flooding.
"I really think there's locations where the riverbed has changed its course," Douglas said. "If something is not done immediately to remove some of the debris and some of the river rock, then some of these homes that were flooded three times since March, they could be flooded again."
(Editor's note: This article has been corrected to reflect that it was Lewis Brook, not Styles Brook, that Carol Treadwell described as a success story. Also, in the photo caption, Styles Brook is seen in the town of Keene, not Jay.)