KEENE - An effort to rebuild the AuSable River and its tributaries to protect the public from future flooding and restore critical fish habitats is now under way. Last week, river experts from the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and New York State Trout Unlimited teamed up with the state Department of Environmental Conservation and local government officials to evaluate rivers and streams in Essex County damaged by Tropical Storm Irene. The goal of the evaluation, according to the AuSable River Association, was to explore practical approaches to fixing the river in a way that benefits both humans and wildlife. Supervisors from the towns of Keene and Jay say this collaborative approach is needed, especially on the heels of accusations by some green groups that clean up 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" that 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. On Tuesday, DEC 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. 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 placing 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. 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 at Lewis and Clark 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. "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) three 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. 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 AuSable River, while necessary in many cases, left fish with a wide, unprotected river habitat. "If I was a fish I'd say, 'There's nothing here for me, I'm gone!'" he said. Both men said that the sort of planning Derrick is calling 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." The towns of Jay and Keene will hosted a forum Nov. 1 at the Town of Jay Community Center, during which the public asked questions about the future of the AuSable River. The meeting included a presentation by Plattsburgh State professor Dr. Timothy Mihuc on Irene's damage to public and private infrastructure.
Chris Morris/For the News
David Derrick, left, a river expert with the Army Corps of Engineers, explains how the use of boulders and trees can strengthen river banks and protect property in the event of major flooding.