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More from the bank of John’s Brook

October 6, 2011
By Frank Owen

The commentary published on Sept. 29 was contributed by my fellow villager, neighbor and friend, Henrietta Jordan. She is an able person, a former state representative in Vermont and a longtime member of the Keene Valley community. She is always thoughtful in her concerns, as is the case in her "Report from John's Brook." She is one of many who lament the recent dredging of brooks and streams in the area after Tropical Storm Irene. I would like to offer a differing point of view. Perhaps it is because I am a westerner in upbringing and rocky meanders are part of my mental landscape. Perhaps, too, it is the number of years I lived in the Flood Control District of Sacramento, Calif., where dredging and levees are ubiquitous and necessary.

I also have nostalgic memories of John's Brook, especially of the place where it is crossed by the bridge on Interbrook Road. Upstream is where I did my rock hopping at age 19 in black and white sneakers. (There were only two colors in those days). I am pleased to report that section of the stream is much the same as it was pre-Irene. There is exposed bedrock or at least enormous boulders in that stretch above the area that Ms. Jordan describes as "dredged and diked into an unrecognizable, flat-bottomed stream."

It is true that a dredging operation took place over several days and that the material was laid up against a bank that had been scoured by the ultra-high water of Irene. I watched this project happen with interest and satisfaction. It was an impressive and, I believe, timely effort that was managed by Keene's highway superintendent, Bruce Reed, with an alert and intelligent eye. Machine operators gripped and stacked stone with a precision and grace that was belied by the behemoth machines they guided with wrist flicks. They move massive quantities of river stones into walls to protect the exposed southern bank. It was a fascinating and noisy operation. I could not stay away. Nor should I have, as my wife and I own a great part of the stream bank that was being protected.

We once thought the property could accommodate two to three village homes with a waterfront vista. And as we are in the real estate business, that was an enticing prospect. But it is not to be. The high water of 1996 took approximately 2,777 cubic yards away and downstream. Irene filled John's Brook even higher, and it excavated another 9,259 cubic yards. That is a chunk of bank measuring roughly 250 feet long by 25 feet high by 40 feet deep. That material, including a number of large trees, went northward into a previously existing small channel known as Little John's Brook. But this recent massive flood of water, sand and rock overwhelmed the terrain across which it thundered and deposited tons of sand and mud in a large area to depths up to 3 feet. A cause of this northward redirection of the brook was the deep excavation of the curving bank that we own on the south edge. As the angle of the curve got sharper, the water took a new path, and with a vengeance. This outcome had been predicted in 1999 by the capable civil engineer from Lewis, the late Frank Field. We hired him to propose and supervise the installation for a protective barrier of shot rock or hewn granite to prevent further erosion of the post-1996 high water. His plan received a DEC permit in 2000. Unfortunately, we could not find the means to implement it. I asked him what would happen if the bank remained exposed. He described an evolving situation where the curve of the bank would become sharper over time and the direction of the brook's flow would be altered northward. He calculated that three or four more 100-year floods would do the job. Irene did it in one day. Had the storm continued another day, most of the structures that were flooded by the AuSable River from behind would have also been attacked in their fronts by a newly relocated John's Brook.

The best hope for preventing this lies in the excavating that was done within days of the storm.

The lower length of John's Brook that is under discussion has never been narrow and full of large stones. It has always been wide and usually shallow. It has doubled in width with the surge from Irene. The excavation's shifting of stone did not "straighten" the channel, which has always been a long curve. It reinstated the historical line. Now it is flowing nicely in the same place it has for thousands of years.

There will be future assaults on the brook's containment. There is no certainty that the work just done will hold for long or at all. But I applaud the effort. It is not enough to call for studies that will drag on for 10 or more years. It is insufficient to call for the consultation with qualified engineers who might devise a solution. In this case, this was done. Indeed, our engineer, Frank Field, also told me that the best thing to be done was to put one or two machines into the brook and have them move the stone from the north side over to the south side. This would have been the least expensive and the most direct solution to the problem. This is exactly what the leadership of the town of Keene has caused to be done. And it was done without over-reliance on theory or hand wringing. I used my hands to applaud the effort.

It is wonderful that community leaders see to it that opportunities are seized and things are accomplished. Is it perfect? No. Will it be effective? Time and water will tell. Is it natural and beautiful? Well, no. Can you still rock hop? You bet, and on rocks that have never been hopped on before. Will the fish come back? Two men from New York state department of fisheries looked the job over and said, "The trout will return. They know how to ride these events out." Perhaps we humans will also learn to deal with these events. At the least, an effort was made on John's Brook. I am grateful to the town of Keene for its expeditious action. I believe others are, too.


Frank Owen lives in Keene Valley.



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