AuSABLE FORKS - About 100 people attended a forum here Tuesday evening that focused on the state of the AuSable River and its tributaries after Tropical Storm Irene.
The forum, held at the Town of Jay Community Center, featured a presentation by Plattsburgh State University professor Timothy Mihuc on how Irene impacted human and wildlife habitats. It also featured a diverse panel of about 30 local, state and federal officials who answered questions about cleanup and repairs, and how to mitigate future flooding.
Jay town Supervisor Randy Douglas organized the event. He said a broad, collaborative approach is needed as communities continue to work toward restoration.
Keene town Councilman Paul Martin shares his concerns about the AuSable River with a panel of local, state and federal officials during a forum Tuesday night hosted by the town of Jay.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Morris)
"I wanted a candid dialogue about the AuSable River and its tributaries, taking into account both public safety and environmental concerns," Douglas said.
The conversation centered mostly on the future and what needs to happen next as communities continue rebuilding from the historic flooding Aug. 28.
Keene town Supervisor Bill Ferebee drove that point home, stating that arguments and finger pointing about work that has already been completed needs to stop.
"We're all in this together," he said, drawing applause from the audience. "I would like to see the negativity refocused on positive energy. Let's talk about what we need to do, not what was done. The negativity needs to stop."
Following Irene, Gov. Andrew Cuomo temporarily lifted state Department of Environmental Conservation and Adirondack Park Agency permit requirements so local governments could begin to rebuild as soon as possible. Work crews began digging out the AuSable River and its branches and brooks, and that led to criticisms by some environmentalists and property owners that crews had done irreparable damage.
But Brian Houseal, executive director of the Adirondack Council environmental group, said those workers did the right thing.
"It's about public safety, health and welfare," he said, drawing more applause. "All the environmental hazards were removed from the rivers. It (the work) was incredible."
Another environmental leader, Dan Plumley of Adirondack Wild, who lives in Keene, said the public needs to recognize people like Ferebee and Douglas for the work they've done since Irene.
"It's an opportunity to look forward together on how we can deal with this in a stronger, community way," Plumley said.
Mihuc opened up the forum with a college-style lecture on the AuSable River's ecology and physical attributes. He paced back and forth in front of a projector that splashed images of the river before and after the storm on a screen, and paused occasionally to ask questions of the audience.
"This was a pretty severe event," Mihuc said. "Some dramatic things happened in this river."
According to Mihuc, Irene caused the AuSable to surge to more than 30,000 cubic feet per second. He said anything over 12,000 CFS is a 20-year event and that Irene was a 200- to 500-year event.
But Mihuc said that doesn't mean another Irene won't happen for 200 more years.
"Stats are tough," he said, "because there isn't enough data out there yet. It's a chance, it's probability."
Mihuc also said Irene was a relatively quick event. He said it brought large amounts of precipitation in a short period of time, which caused the river to surge dramatically. The flooding was powerful enough to carry car-engine-size boulders, massive trees and other debris hundreds of yards downstream, all of which reshaped the character of affected rivers and streams.
Henrietta Jordan, of Keene Valley, asked Mihuc if the river should be left in its current state, which includes channel modification done by work crews. Mihuc said some of that work will help property owners along John's Brook, for example, but he said the work could cause problems downstream.
Mihuc said the banks of John's Brook were stabilized using head-sized boulders and rocks, and he stressed that the work did, in fact, shore up the river's banks. But he added that an event like Irene would "blow that work out" and send those rocks downstream toward other properties and homes.
Keene town Councilman Paul Martin said people should not expect the AuSable River and its tributaries to look as picturesque as they did before Irene. He said work within the towns of Jay and Keene should take a people-first approach. Outside of town, he said, fish habitats should take priority.
Looking ahead, officials said they are worried about how the river can be fixed in a way that will protect the public and the environment.
Black Brook town Councilman Howard Aubin said agencies like DEC were "timely and helpful" during and after the storm, but he said he has concerns about who will claim jurisdiction for future work.
"We know who wants responsibility to do the regulating," he said, referring to state and federal agencies, "but who is claiming responsibility for the mess left behind? The towns."
Chris Garrow, superintendent of Jay's town highway department, agreed.
"My biggest fear for all of this is where we're going to end up," he said. "I don't know where to turn. We need funding. We need something. We're still working on a water main that we're operating on a fire hose. The funding has to come from somewhere. We need money to help us through this."
Where that money will come from as towns continue to pick up the pieces is uncertain. Douglas said his town has borrowed millions of dollars just to complete emergency repairs, and he hopes reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will start to arrive soon.
Douglas said before the meeting that his main goal was to bring people together. With regulatory agencies, environmental groups, local governments and flood victims all under one roof for one night, Douglas appeared to have taken a major step toward that goal.
"Partisan politics haven't been a factor in any of this flood recovery," he said. "We need to keep moving forward together."