Ausable River restoration project aims to right past wrongs
By Tim Rowland
Work began last week on a multi-year project to restore the East Branch of the Ausable River to its pre-industrial-era health.
For the next month, big machines from Marcy Excavation Services will be in the water, just downstream from Upper Jay, molding the stream bank and bed, much like bodybuilders seek to add muscle and definition to their physique.
Too shallow, too wide and too straight from the days more than a century ago when it was molded into a shipping lane that delivered logs from mountain flanks to downstream mills, the East Branch today runs languid and limp, lacking the horsepower needed to cleanse itself of silt and cobble. Instead, the material builds up and chokes naturally occurring holes and riffles common to a healthy stream.
Because of this, flooding and erosion are more severe, ice jams more destructive, habitat less enticing for fish, aesthetics less pleasing and recreational opportunities less available,
So the Ausable River Association, the town of Jay and their partners are embarking on a 13-phase program that will take years, but will eventually give mother nature the assist she needs to do her job.
AsRA executive Director Kelley Tucker said everywhere you look in the riverbed you can see places where the habitual builders and tinkerers of the 19th century shaped the Ausable to power their enterprises. “Lumbering was lumbering; it wasn’t intentional, but they inadvertently harmed the river,” she said.
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Because it flows through a wide, flat valley, the East Branch will never become the churning froth-fest of the West Branch, which flows through Wilmington Notch. But its channel will be deepened, adding velocity to its current, and its banks will be widened into the broad shoulders known as floodplains that give excess water somewhere to go when it storms. These release valves, when the river is at normal levels, will also be adding greenspace and tree-lined banks that accommodate picnicking and fishing and will just plain look better than the scarred, eroded stream banks that are an unfortunate hallmark of the East Branch today.
The work is popular in the community because it will also mitigate floodwaters and ice jams that, when they break, crush everything in their path as they go thundering down the valley. In winter, the wide and shallow river is an ice making machine; by comparison, the strong current at Monument Falls on the West Branch seldom freezes all the way.
“You can’t prevent flooding, but you can make it more predictable,” Tucker said. A healthy, natural river is easier to live alongside, but part of the equation is moving development out of the floodplain — which is more cost effective than going back in and making repairs to roads and homes every time it floods.
Although it looks like an assemblage of oversized Tonka Toys playing in a watery sandbox, restoring a stream is in fact high art and requires a remarkable degree of precision. Contractors enjoy the work because it’s a beautiful setting and also a test of skill.
Overlorded by satellite coordinates, the biggest excavator has sensors in the teeth of its bucket that are accurate to one one-hundredth of an inch, Tucker said. That matters because floodwaters are unimpressed by good intentions, and even the slightest miscalculation can allow a surging current to outflank a protective barrier and ruin a lot of hard and expensive work.
The weapons at contractors’ disposal go by names such as J hooks, toe wood and W weirs that direct current and stabilize banks so they don’t wash away. Toe wood are sizable logs, root balls still attached, that are anchored into the stream bank and are actually tightened by the pressure of high water. W weirs are stone, current-directing funnels that are anchored by boulder pilings whose location to a fraction of an inch is calculated by using a satellite base station and a mobile “rover” that, grossly oversimplified, is something of a digital tape measure.
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Photo by Brendan Wiltse/Ausable River Association.
The idea and technology were initiated in the West 20 to 30 years ago, and has only arrived in the East over the past decade. Kelley said regulatory agencies were understandably dubious. Although most of the superstructure is under water, “The APA was worried it was going to look like a dock,” she said.
Still, they allowed AsRA to build a couple of small enhancements along the West Branch on River Road in 2010. The very next year, along came Hurricane Irene. “Those babies rode it out — it was primo,” Tucker said.
Today, the APA, Department of Environmental Conservation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service work together to facilitate the process — even if the public isn’t always aware of what’s being done.
The very first day the machines were in the water, the DEC received a complaint — which made Tucker happy. “That’s great, it means somebody is paying attention,” she said.
The process also uses natural materials that are mostly underwater. When all is said and done, unless they know what to look for, no one will even know that any work has been done.
That stands in contrast to riverbanks that are hardened with rip rap or walls of steel. These structures protect the bank they are built upon, but they send floodwaters caroming to the other side of the river to do more damage downstream.
By contrast, “Everything we improve upstream helps downstream,” Tucker said.
Each of the 13 projects will run between several hundred thousand dollars to upwards of $1 million — although the first one is costing more due to Covid-caused market stresses. AsRA hopes to have grant money in place next year for a second Upper Jay project, this one above the 9N bridge, one of the biggest sources of East Branch ice jams.
With an eye toward pending congressional funding, it is also lobbying for river restoration to be considered as infrastructure because it offers protections of man-made projects and contributes to public health by improving the quality of drinking water. “I’d love to see the Jay work knocked out in five or 10 years,” Tucker said.
If that happens, the river valley could have a different look and feel. Fishing would be better, the river would be more accessible and scarred strips of flood-battered land would be reclaimed.
“Tourism is based on beauty, and people will be able to enjoy the river more,” Tucker said. “It will create more green space — Au Sable Forks would have green, tree-shaded banks to walk or fish. This really is a beautiful river.”