Lawmakers, local politicians and state officials joined state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens in Keene Valley last week to inspect stream restoration work on Johns Brook.
Local works crews did emergency repairs immediately following Irene, but environmental specialists said additional work was needed to restore fish and wildlife habitats and protect against future flooding. Chris Morris went along for the inspection.
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It’s a frigid winter day in Keene Valley as politicians and other stakeholders huddle on the banks of Johns Brook, a small stream that feeds into the East Branch of the AuSable River.
Bill Schoch is a fisheries biologist with DEC. He says emergency work was done after Tropical Storm Irene to protect critical transportation infrastructure and property owners downstream.
“Since then, we’ve begun to look at longer-term restoration options,” Schoch said. “And there are some great options that can help us better protect the infrastructure, help the channel pass future flood flows with less problems and give us fish habitat. We can have it all, so to speak.”
Schoch says state transportation crews were able to install natural structures that redirect the energy of the brook away from bridges and riverbanks. He says the work that was done also uses the stream’s energy to keep sediment from building up in less than desirable places.
“So we have a rock weir across the channel,” Schoch said. “It’s U-shaped, with the open part of the U facing downstream. And as the rock comes up on the bank, the elevation of the rock increases. What this does is it redirects the stream’s erosive energy to the middle of the stream.”
As the water level rises, Schoch says it flows over the sides of the weir and turns toward the middle of the channel, away from riverbanks and bridge abutments.
But this work is just a small portion of what needs to be done. Keene Valley resident Henrietta Jordan told officials she’s still concerned about problems upstream.
“Because, as you know, the banks were heavily armored, and the channels, as best as I can tell, and I’m not a stream technician, it appears to have been cut off from its historic flood plain,” she said. “And I’m concerned, as a lay person, that the velocity of the water now channelized is going to be sort of tough on this new structure that you’ve put into place.”
Schoch says no specific plans are in place to fix upstream problems yet. But he says he hopes those will be addressed as soon as the necessary funding and resources are in place.
DEC Commissioner Joe Martens says he’s heard complaints that there is too little state funding for this kind of river work. He says more resources are being put into fixing these problems.
“There was kind of an unprecedented act of the Legislature in December to provide resources to local communities for addressing just these types of problems,” Martens said. “Twenty-one million dollars went to ESD (Empire State Development) … nine million dollars to counties to do more of this work.”
Dan Plumley, of the environmental group Adirondack Wild, says he was among those that were concerned with the emergency work done following Irene. In some cases, critics argued that streams were reshaped in a way that made them look like urban drainage ditches.
Plumley says he and others wanted a task force of state and federal officials that would work with town supervisors and stakeholders.
He says he felt that people in the towns of Keene and Jay have been left out in the cold.
“They’ve not been informed, they’ve not been invited to understand what’s happening in their rivers, and the lesson learned is that they care,” Plumley said. “They want to know about the future management of these important ecosystems.”
But Martens denies that government left local stakeholders out of the process.
“Nobody said government was perfect,” he said. “When you started the conversation about the groups and the locals asking for things, from where I sit, you got it. You got more attention from more levels of state government than I’ve ever witnessed before.”
Keene town Supervisor Bill Ferebee says other streams in his community, like Gulf Brook, are still a mess. He says he appreciates the work that’s been done, but he won’t feel comfortable until more resources start flowing in.
“It’s great to see the commissioner here, and we’ve definitely had the governor involved,” Ferebee said. “Eventually it will get there; it’s just not as quickly as we’d like to see it happen.”