KEENE?VALLEY - Work started this week on a river bank stabilization and habitat restoration project along the East Branch of the AuSable River in the hamlet of Keene Valley. This project is a cooperative effort between Trout Unlimited (TU), the Ausable River Association (AsRA), Essex County Soil & Water Conservation District (SWCD), U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), the Town of Keene and local landowners to improve water quality, restore valuable fish and wildlife habitat and improve flood resilience.
A combination of historic land uses and highly erodible soil has caused this 2,800-foot stretch of river to become over-widened, shallow and slow, diminishing the water's ability to carry the sediment load from upstream. As a result, over many decades, the area around Rivermede Farm has become a site for gravel and sand deposition.
As the river drops sediment along this slow stretch and must then find alternate routes around deposited gravel, the widening process perpetuates. Furthermore, silt and sand sediments have clogged the gravel beds that trout rely upon for spawning and feeding and caused major deterioration of fish habitat.
Carl Schwartz, state coordinator for FWS's Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, designed this large-scale restoration project that employs toe wood structures to stabilize and reshape the banks so that they are less erodible and mimic a natural channel, as well as log vanes to deflect flow from the banks.
Schwartz will oversee the work on the plan which will narrow the channel (speeding the flow and decreasing deposition), decrease erosion, provide habitat for aquatic species and restore the river's access to the floodplain (improving flood resiliency).
"This is a wonderful example of using natural, local materials to improve the river's health, build resilience to flooding, while also keeping the river scenic and the costs reasonable," said Martha Naley, FWS biologist in a press rlease.
John Braico of Trout Unlimited is coordinating the project and led teams during several weekends in June as they collected necessary geomorphic measurements to inform Schwartz's restoration plan.
"This is a win-win situation for the entire community, including the landowners," Braico said. "For a fraction of the originally-proposed cost, recreational resources like swimming and angling will be drastically improved, as well as the area's aesthetics."
Starting on July 14, volunteers and Ward Logging, a local company, began harvesting the trees to be used in the stream restoration work that began this week.
"As locals, we're excited and proud to be fixing our river," Ward Logging owner Mike Ward said. "It is our river, we fish in it, we canoe it and we all need to take care of it."
The work will progress through July and into August this year.
"I'm happy to see more contractors getting involved in the use of onsite materials and natural channel designs. It keeps the costs down and is better for the river," said Ron Frisbee, a Columbia & Greene County Cornell Cooperative Extension educator who has used vacation time to tirelessly volunteer on the project.
"After 20 years of trials and errors, it's nice to see a project we feel confident in that will bring back the health of the river and eliminate severe erosion," said Rob Hastings, Rivermede Farm owner.
Town of Keene Supervisor Bill Ferebee added, "I'm happy to see the project moving forward and am glad we've found a way to make it happen with all these partners and volunteers."
To make the restoration project accessible to the community, the Ausable River Association and Essex County SWCD will host workshops at the site on August 16 when Schwartz will use the project to train interested community members about river dynamics and techniques for natural channel design.
"It's great to be working with such committed partners to accomplish long-needed restoration work on the East Branch," AsRA's Director Corrie Miller said. "We're particularly fortunate that Carl Schwartz is back in our watershed and willing to share his expertise with the community."
"It's great to be able to use this project to demonstrate stream restoration, to train people and contractors so that we are better prepared in the future," said Dave Reckahn, Essex County SWCD Manager.