KEENE VALLEY - After more than a decade of being mired in the planning stages, a major river project on the East Branch of the AuSable River is under way.
The project is taking place at the Rivermede Farm property in Keene Valley. It encompasses 2,800 feet of river and will help stabilize its banks, prevent erosion and downstream sedimentation, and improve the habitat for fish and other aquatic invertebrates, according to project organizers. The job is expected to take about three weeks and finish in early- to mid-August.
The work is being completed through the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, which is run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The program partners are Trout Unlimited, AuSable River Association and the Essex County Soil and Water Conservation District. The project cooperators are the two landowners: Rivermede Farm and the town of Keene, which plans to provide public access and a small, simple riverside park along the water when the work is done.
An excavator restores the riverbank along the East Branch of the AuSable River in Keene Valley on Monday, July 30. Planning for the project started in 1998, but work didn’t start until this summer.
Mike Lynch/Lake Placid News
Dr. John Braico, who lives in Queensbury and is a member of the Adirondack Chapter of Trout Unlimited and on the organization's national board of trustees, has been involved with the project since its inception in 1998.
Braico said the work was originally slated to be done by the National Resource Conservation Service, but stalled because of a lack of funding. The job was then passed on to the Army Corps of Engineers in 2005, Braico said. Finally, in 2010, the project was put out to bid, and it was determined the job was too expensive.
Under the supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers, the cost of the project ballooned to about $2.4 million, according to Braico.
"Our deficit kind of grew tremendously because of some inherent tendencies that happen when you work with the Army Corps," Braico said. "So that went nowhere."
Finally in February, Braico said he reached out to Carl Schwartz, who heads the Partners for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in New York state. Now the estimated cost of this project is in the $90,000 to $120,000 range.
"(It) worked out to be about two percent of what the Army Corps project was going to be," Braico said.
But Schwartz and Braico are quick to point out that the project is now moving forward using information gained from preliminary studies performed by the other two groups. That helped keep the cost down along with the use of many volunteers, they said. They also mentioned that the Army Corps plans would have worked, they just were extremely expensive, in part because they required moving the river hundreds of feet.
"They had already put a lot of investment and time into doing the surveys, so we knew what the slopes should be," Schwartz said. "We knew what the widths should be. We knew generally what the dimensions should be."
One of the first things Schwartz said he did for the job was determine how he could use the natural materials that already existed at the site.
The plan calls for stabilizing the banks of the river with logs, brush and other natural material found on the farm.
The project actually kicked off in July with crews logging the Rivermede sugar bush. Loggers ripped out trees and their root balls, in addition to cutting down some trees. Maple trees were left in place.
Schwartz said the logs were placed at the bottom of the new riverbank. The trees with root balls were placed on top of them with the root balls facing the streams. Brush was put down next, and then fabric, and then dirt. Eventually, vegetation will be planted on the top of the banks as the final touch. The shorelines have two levels that allow for the river to swell and spread out gradually when the water rises.
This is the second local project that used this system. Recently, the method was employed on Larry Master's property in Lake Placid on the West Branch of the AuSable River, where erosion was occurring.
Those involved with this project said the riverbank stabilization was necessary because the banks were eroding and causing a hardship for the landowner and the downstream ecosystem.
"This bend and the next bend were causing massive loss of valuable crop land on this organic farm every year, just thousands of tons of soil was being washed out," Braico said. "They were losing an average of 6 feet of bank per year on a bank that was 6 foot tall. ... It's a huge amount that was being lost, and all that contributes to negative impacts when it impacts the channel, starts filling up the nooks and the crannies between the rocks."
The erosion at the site had also caused the river to widen, he said.
Braico said when he did the first survey on the river in the late 1990s, it was 243 feet across.
"It's supposed to be a bank with a width of 90 feet," Braico said. "It actually spread out over 300 feet, and you had braided multiple channels going everywhere. You were getting a huge amount of deposition."
Braico said that "chaotic system" lent itself to become unstable during flood events. With more narrow channels and floodplains that are carefully planned and constructed, the river should be less vulnerable in flooding events, he said.
"A stable river, if you can get it back to stable conditions, it manages itself," Braico said.
Corrie Miller, ASRA's executive director, said her organization helped coordinate volunteers for this project and appeared extremely pleased with it.
"It's creating habitat," Miller said. "It's creating flood resiliency, reducing erosion. All these things that have been called for in the AuSable River Management Plan I feel like we're implementing that here. But on top of that, we're going to use it to educate people and let people see what options are and we can all watch it over the years."
Since Tropical Storm Irene flooded the region last August, there has been a public discussion about what is the best method for managing and restoring flood-damaged rivers on private property and near public infrastructure. This is one system Miller and Braico hope others use when doing river work in the future.
Miller said her organization and Trout Unlimited plan to host workshops at Rivermede Farm on Aug. 16 that will be focused on providing participants an overview of the restoration work. The first workshop will be at 9:30 a.m. and will be for highway work crews, contractors and local officials. The second, at 1:30 p.m., will be for the public.
"It's a model," said Keene town Supervisor Bill Ferebee. "It's the first time done in the AuSable River... so it's really a test here."
Ferebee said some people doubt the project will stabilize the banks and last in the long term, but he wants to give it a chance.
"You know, who knows what will work or what will last if you don't try it," Ferebee said.
Schwartz is confident the system will work.
"What will be interesting is I know everybody is a skeptic about this," Schwartz said. "No matter how many projects I've done and it's many, many, many, people always say it'll never hold. The ice will take it out. It'll never work and so everybody is a skeptic."
He's confident the careful planning that relied on science, along with the natural materials used, will more than hold up in the long run and will help the ecosystem return to a more natural state. The goal is that when the work crews walk away from the site that it looks "like they were never here," he said.
"There's a science and there's an art," Schwartz said, "and this is the blending of the two."