Meet, Gary Henry, stream restoration associate

On the bank of the East Branch of the AuSable river in Upper Jay, behind Wells Memorial Library, river restoration associate Gary Henry looks over ongoing work at the site. (Provided photo — Martha Allen)

UPPER JAY — The East Branch AuSable River Restoration project is in full swing. Behind the Wells Memorial Library, visible from the state road, heavy equipment vehicles, including an excavator, a crane and an articulated rock trucks, are down in the river and on its banks, moving sand, earth and rock of all sizes, from pebbles to cobble to boulders.

Gary Henry became stream restoration associate at the Ausable River Association in February, working closely with Kelley Tucker, executive director. He described the team’s ongoing work as “sculpting the riverbed.”

This section of the AuSable’s east branch has widened and spread, due in part to the ravages of tropical storm Irene in 2011. An island, or cobble bar, has formed in its center. An island of this kind, except where it is normal at a river bend, is one sign of an unhealthy river, Henry said. The result of AsRA’s sculpting will be a narrower, deeper river, with a faster moving current. Cobble, pebbles and sand that accumulated midstream are being shifted to stabilize the banks, prevent erosion and downstream sediment buildup, and improve the habitat for aquatic and riparian life.

The East Branch restoration, Henry points out, “is not my brain child. This was designed and planned before I came on board with the Ausable River Association. … My main role is acting as the on-site representative of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which issued the permit for the project. We partner with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on all of our projects.”

Henry grew up on the Allegheny Plateau in Southeastern Ohio.

“Oh, and I’m from the unglaciated part of the plateau,” he allowed. “I’m hillbilly on my dad’s side of the family.” He was referring to the rugged, hilly landscape of the unglaciated part of the plateau, compared to the gentle slopes that were once covered by glaciers.

He went on to Ohio’s Kent State University after high school. According to Henry, he decided to major in geology because he wanted to be a scientist and figured that geologists got to be outside a lot of the time. Left brain, right brain: Henry pursued his love of music as well as science, writing his own songs as well as singing covers.

He and his wife – also a geologist — met at Kent State, and they both went on to graduate school at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He holds a bachelor’s degree as well as a master’s degree in geology.

Henry worked as an intern for the Brazos River Authority in Waco while still in school, and then for five years as a hydrogeologist and project manager at an environmental engineering firm in Dallas.

He and his wife moved to northern upstate New York, where he served as an associate professor of environmental science and technology at Clinton Community College in Plattsburgh for more than 12 years, receiving the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

There has been talk locally that the AsRA’s current project in Upper Jay was designed to improve swimming holes along the AuSable River. Henry says that, while better swimming holes may well be a result of the work now underway, this was not the motivating factor for the river recovery plan.

Boulders have been brought in to build rock clusters and W-weirs, structures that create deep scour holes that improve fish habitat.

“Boulders,” explained Henry, “were not brought in to prevent erosion. That is known as riprap (using large rocks and boulders on banks to prevent erosion), and it’s not part of our tool kit for protecting streambanks. These boulders are used as part of rock features in the channel (W-weirs and rock clusters) that direct flows away from the banks and keep the thalweg (the deepest part of the channel with higher velocities) in the middle of the channel.”

Riprap, a type of so-called bank armor once used extensively in the area, is now considered a less ecologically beneficial alternative to the W-weir.

True to its name, the W-weir is a structure in the shape of the letter W, built across the width of the stream. Unlike a dam, it allows water to pass over its top, and it creates deep pools beneath the arches of its angles.

Many local people recall the days of dredging, when tons of rock and sand were dug out of the Ausable river and transported to repair dirt roads. Dredging has now largely been replaced by more environmentally sound ways to restore local waterways.

Mike Ward, of Ward Logging, has built natural toe wood walls along the banks, which act as a stabilizing retainer while at the same time creating fish habitat. The toe of the slope is the interface where the bank meets the streambed. Logs and woody debris are built into the bank, and brush, enveloped in coir mesh, with branches reaching into the water, line the sides.

`“The brush,” Henry explained, is just woody debris to provide habitat. It will decompose over time. Next week, they will be planting grasses and trees on the top of the toe wood bench.”

Ward, who has extensive experience with river restoration work, also built the toe wood riverbank siding for the Rivermede Ausable project in Keene Valley, which began in 2012.

Small minnows arrived almost immediately after the Upper Jay toe wood structures were put in, and larger fish followed.

Toe walls can be made using concrete instead of trees and brush, but rigid tunneling creates what Henry called “a water cannon” effect, channeling and shooting the river water too forcefully. Toe wood prevents erosion while plants are growing and developing root systems that will eventually stabilize the bank.

This is the last year of The Governor’s Office Storm Recovery (GOSR), created by New York Governor Cuomo to fund repairs for damages caused by Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene. GOSR has been a major source of funding for the Upper Jay East Branch restoration project.

Funding for the project has also come from the Lake Champlain Basin Program. AsRA partners with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Adirondack Nature Conservancy and other organizations.

Those who have been to Henry’s local musical performances or visited the YouTube channel he created might wonder: Is this soloist singer and guitar player the same Gary Henry as the hydrogeologist? The answer is yes.

“Regarding your question about YouTube, yes, that’s me. I’m a big Gram Parsons fan, and I’ve been a live musician for nearly 25 years.”

Gary lives in Peru, New York, with his wife and son and likes to spend time working in his backyard garden and hiking and camping in the Adirondacks.

“You can tell your friend Karina,” he said, referring to a member of the public who earlier expressed interest, “those swimming holes should be ready in a few weeks. But it might be a little chilly by then.”

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