KEENE VALLEY - This fall, Johns Brook became the center of a controversy as cleanup crews worked in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene.
Conservation groups and some local residents criticized the work municipal crews did there, saying the bulldozers were taking a natural Adirondack stream and turning it into an urban drainage ditch, which they said would exacerbate future flooding downstream and ruin fish habitat. Critics said the river work needed to be done with more planning and oversight from environmental regulatory agencies.
On Tuesday, state Department of Transportation workers, under the supervision of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, took a big step toward pleasing those critics by working on Johns Brook near the bridge on state Route 73 a short distance from the Mountaineer gear store.
State Department of Transportation crews work to restore John’s Brook in Keene Valley to a more natural state Tuesday while simultaneously channelling the water in such a way that it would do less damage to the Route 73 bridge in the event of a future flood.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
Representatives from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Essex County Soil and Water Conservation District were also on hand to inspect the work.
DEC fisheries biologist Bill Schoch said excavators were working Tuesday to create a stream bed just upstream of the bridge that would be less prone to filling with sediment, which has happened near the bridge in the past. The workers were placing boulders in the stream that would funnel the water's energy away from riverbanks and into the center of the stream near the bridge.
In addition, the workers were restoring the stream to a more natural state, adding "structure" and creating pools that are good for fish habitat.
"Right now we're trying to narrow the stream a little," said Madeleine Lyttle, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "This stream should be between 50 and 60 feet wide and the bridge is a lot larger, so what happens, when the water comes down, it actually spreads out and slows down. That's why this bridge always has deposition under it, so if we narrow the stream and push the water through the center, then it'll keep that flushed out."
In September, one of the most vocal critics of the work done in Johns Brook and other areas was Dan Plumley of the conservation group Adirondack Wild. He was one of leaders of a coalition of conservation groups that petitioned Gov. Andrew Cuomo for more oversight of the river work from environmental regulators. He was pleased Tuesday to see the work being done with more planning and supervision.
"Today for the first time, we see that happening," Plumley said. "We congratulate the DEC and the Department of Transportation for moving that critical aspect forward here at Johns Brook."
AuSable River Association Director Corrie Miller, who started in her job this fall, was also happy with the work being done.
"I am excited that all these partners are hear together, thinking about the infrastructure and helping human safety at the same time as really using a thoughtful plan, written by people who know how the river works," she said.
But while they were pleased to see the work being done near the bridge, Plumley said there are still long stretches of waterways that need to be restored to a more natural state. Both Schoch and Lyttle acknowledged that.
"It would be nice if we could go upstream, but these guys are with DOT, and DOT is only letting us work in their right of way," Lyttle said. "But come spring, when everything settles down a little, we hope to come back and do some more adjustments."
On a walk upstream, Schoch pointed out that some of the work done by heavy machinery after Irene could make flooding worse in future.
He said that downstream near the bridge, it's important to keep the brook focused for a short stretch, but upstream it's important to provide floodplains so the brook can spread out.
Upstream from the bridge, there are long stretches where the brook is a straight channel with high berms along its banks. There are no boulders in the current and few overflow areas on its sides. Schoch said this type of river structure could essentially "create a water cannon" during a flood.
"There's a lot more that should be done to reconnect the stream to its floodplains in places where it's been isolated and to disperse the streams energy throughout its full length," Schoch said.
Asked if natural events such as flooding could restore Johns Brook, Schoch said that is unlikely.
"Nature can fix itself, but we've done such big changes to such long sections, it'll take a long time for it to do that," Schoch said.
Schoch did not to criticize the crews that did the work after Tropical Storm Irene, saying that it was well intended and he wasn't there to see exactly what the workers were dealing with. He was more focused on moving forward and fixing the problems.
Despite the acknowledgment that more work needs to be done, restoring the streams isn't guaranteed to happen.
"There's just not a lot of funding available to restore stream channels," Schoch said. "The (county) Soil and Water Conservation District is certainly looking to find those funds, as is Fish and Wildlife Service and DEC, so lots of people are looking to see where we might get those repairs. But it's not easy to find funding."
Plumley said that he believes the agencies would have a better chance of securing funding and moving forward on the work if they form a committee that includes government workers, conservation groups and local residents.
"The second thing that coalition of 20 organizations asked for was leadership at the governor's level to bring the DOT, DEC and the (state Adirondack) Park Agency together with other appropriate entities," Plumley said.
He would like to see a team work together to develop a coordinated plan for management and restoration of the waterways in the AuSable River valley and other affected watersheds.
"Unfortunately, the lack of coordination at the governor's level seems to be still in existence in terms of actually going out after a clear list of priorities for restoration and the state or federal monies to fund the work that's necessary," Plumley said. "A good start was made today, but we have a long way to go."