KEENE - An effort is now under way to rebuild the AuSable River and its tributaries to protect the public from future flooding and restore critical fish habitats.
On Tuesday, state Department of Environmental Conservation staff and officials with Essex County Soil and Water Conservation joined David Derrick, a river expert with the Army Corps of Engineers, to inspect portions of the AuSable and Boquet rivers damaged by Tropical Storm Irene. The goal of the evaluation was to explore practical approaches to fixing the river in a way that benefits both humans and wildlife, officials said.
Derrick, who has helped put together flood mitigation plans for the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, explained how engineers can develop plans to protect communities from major flooding. He said the strategic placement of stones and planting of trees along erosion lines can stabilize river banks and protect bordering properties, like Greg Boynton's vacation home on state Route 9N, next-door to the Keene Water Treatment Plant.
David Derrick, right, a river expert with the Army Corps of Engineers, uses dirt, sticks and rocks to explain how his agency rebuilt the banks of the Missouri River to protect humans and wildlife from flooding. Bill Schoch, fisheries manager with the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Region 5 office, looks on.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Morris)
Boynton said flooding triggered by Irene swept away nearly 75 feet of riverbank on his property, taking with it Adirondack chairs and a fire pit, and leaving behind a sheer drop-off into the surging river. He said he welcomes the sort of planning that's now being done.
"(It) will help the fish and stuff, but also let the water flow down through without ripping out any more of the riverbanks," Boynton said.
Derrick said work the Army Corps did on the Missouri River could mitigate flooding in places like Keene and AuSable Forks. Kneeling in the sand along the shores of the East Branch of the AuSable River, he used small rocks and twigs to illustrate how work crews can bolster riverbanks, with the same excitement a child would exhibit at building a sand castle.
The towns of Jay and Keene will host a forum Nov. 1 at 6 p.m. at the Town of Jay Community Center, during which the public is invited to ask questions about the future of the AuSable River. The meeting will include a presentation by Plattsburgh State University professor Timothy Mihuc on Irene's damage to public and private infrastructure.
"We came in there, put the toe stone in, and put a row of willows in, and we protected to the 100-year flood on this river - it's (the Missouri River) 3 miles wide," he said.
DEC Region 5 Fisheries Manager Bill Schoch said engineers can also put together plans that redirect and narrow a river's energy, improving fish habitats and mitigating major floods.
"The general idea is, if you build a rock vein angled upstream, then as the water comes in, it kind of slows and deposits material," he explained. "When it flows over the vein, you've turned the energy out into the channel instead of having it all along the (river) edge. You've diverted that energy and diffused it."
Marc Migliore, deputy regional permit administrator with DEC's Warrensburg office, said rock veins use the river's currents to naturally deposit sediments, which helps build up and strengthen the riverbank. It also narrows the channel, he said.
"As Bill said, this is shallow and wide," Migliore said. "It could use some narrowing so it has a better channel shape and configuration, which is better for the habitat altogether."
Schoch said Irene's impact on fish habitats was variable.
"The fish themselves are mobile, and a lot of them will have found nooks and crannies where they were out of the current and then go right back to where they were," Schoch said.
Migliore noted that dredging of the river and its tributary brooks, while necessary in many cases, left fish with a wide, unprotected river habitat.
"If I was fish, I'd say, 'There's nothing here for me; I'm gone!'" he said.
Both men said the sort of planning Derrick calls for would address fish habitat issues and mitigate future flooding. They also stressed that observations about the work that was done post-Irene aren't meant to criticize town highway crews.
"It's an emergency situation, (you have to) get water moving again and off people's property and houses," Migliore said. "That's what they did."
Supervisors from the towns of Keene and Jay say this collaborative approach is needed, especially on the heels of accusations by some individuals and green groups that dredging and repairs along the AuSable River damaged the environment. Jay town Supervisor Randy Douglas said highway crews did the best they could under extreme circumstances, and he said agencies and organizations need to come together rather than fight with each other.
Douglas said he was "very appreciative" the Army Corps came to Essex County to study "problem areas" on the AuSable River.
"And now they're going a little bit above that - a lot above, actually - and looking at the problem areas and hopefully they can come up with a game plan to remove these problem areas, keeping in mind public safety and environmental concerns, and keep everybody happy, and hopefully prevent future flooding," he said.