Standing near Styles Brook in the town of Keene Tuesday, Mary Lashway looked around at the dirt-covered landscape that was first torn up by Tropical Storm Irene and was now being worked over by heavy machinery.
The area was a mess. The vegetation covering the ground surrounding the brook has been washed away. Lashway's modest second home was still standing, but just barely. During Irene, Styles Brook ripped the structure off its foundation, pushing it downhill, and ripping one side of it completely off, exposing its insides. Where it once stood, now there is a pile of debris consisting of tree limbs, milled lumber, miscellaneous wires and assorted garbage.
The brook that did all the damage has also completely changed. The storm rerouted the natural path of Styles Brook and moved it closer to Lashway's house, cutting across a local road in the process. Plus, contractors are now digging a second stream with heavy machinery.
A crew uses heavy machinery to put Styles Brook back in its original bed in the town of Keene Tuesday. The brook was completely rerouted during Tropical Storm Irene on Aug. 28.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
"I can't imagine what they did with my property," Lashway said, looking out at the two branches of Styles Brook, which become one before running into the nearby East Branch of the AuSable River. Lashway was not necessarily mad but more shocked by the look of the devastated landscape.
Essex County Soil and Water Conservation District Manager David Reckahn, who is overseeing the job, said workers are trying to return the area to the way it was before the storm, hoping to get it into decent shape before winter. As it stands now, the area resembles a construction zone more than a natural landscape.
Reckahn said the goal is to put pools and riffles into the stream to create habitat for trout, revegetate the shorelines, put woody debris in the water and just generally try to return the area to the way it was before the storm. But Reckahn said it's not easy. For one thing, the tremendous workload created by Irene means he can't oversee all the jobs he'd like to, including the work going on at Styles Brook.
"I'd like to be supervising all day every day," he said. "But we just don't have the people to do it."
Instead, many of the daily decisions on rerouting the waterways are being left to those working the machinery.
"We're getting it done," Reckahn said. "These guys are doing a hell of a job."
While Reckahn appeared confident that the work would get done right, what has happened at other waterways in the Adirondacks has some people concerned. They believe there should be more oversight of the work and studies done related to it.
Last Friday, an alliance that includes environmentalists and sportsmen sent a letter to Cuomo and heads of several state agencies to stop the use of bulldozers and heavy machinery in Adirondack streams and rivers, which has been allowed as an emergency provision after Irene. The letter was signed by members of Trout Unlimited, the AuSable River Association, Adirondack Wild, Protect the Adirondacks, photographer Nathan Farb and Keene town Councilwoman Marcy Neville, among others.
Post-Irene river cleanup work has drawn criticism because it has transformed some rivers and brooks from wild waterways to channels that resemble urban drainage ditches. One of the most severe examples is John's Brook in Keene Valley, where the stream now has a flat bottom. It contains no boulders, debris or vegetation and its stone-covered shorelines are extraordinarily uniform.
"Giant bulldozers ripped up the lower reaches of one of the most beautiful streams in the High Peaks, an ecologically rich habitat for brook trout and the invertebrates they feed on, and transformed it into a rock-lined half-pipe that will make floodwaters flow even faster and more violently into the AuSable," Keene Valley resident Henrietta Jordan wrote in a guest commentary published today.
"This activity is degrading the very rivers that are essential to our economy and quality of life," the alliance's Sept. 23 letter states. "We know that is not your intention, but we want you to know that these actions are not healing our communities, post flood. These actions are not accomplishing your goals to restore our towns. Instead, these actions are destroying a critical tourism resource on which our economies in the Adirondack Park rely."
The letter thanks state leaders for their "support of our communities, businesses and families that have been severely impacted in the wake of Hurricane Irene" but states that the work has gone on too long and is now detrimental to the health of the waterways.
"We feel that the emergency aspect of the cleanup is long over and it's time to take a look at what it means to restore the rivers and streams," alliance leader Dan Plumley of Adirondack Wild told the Enterprise Tuesday.
The group says there has not been enough regulatory oversight of the work done on the waterways and that before any more work is done, a meeting should be held "to discuss immediate actions and longer term steps to remedy this critical situation our rivers are facing."
The group says the meeting should be jointly run by the state departments of Transportation and Environmental Conservation, the state Adirondack Park Agency, local town supervisors and county officials as well as conservation organizations, stakeholder interests and concerned citizens.
"I think more than anything, Irene brought home the difference between a 500-year flood and a 100-year flood," Neville said. "I'm just concerned we're putting a Band-Aid on something that requires a lot more thought. This is a very complex system, and I wish there was a little more thought going into what we're doing. I don't think people are deliberately doing anything bad."