Did we Learn anything from Irene?

by Ted Williams

Here, from a piece I did about responses to Hurricane Irene, are some lessons we need to keep in mind for the next such storm.


Tobogganing on cafeteria trays can be dangerous, especially when icy conditions coincide with heavy drinking, as always seems to happen in my part of the Northeast. So I stick to the foothills. But recently a dozen more daring participants were hospitalized. Some suffered cranial pressure from ependymal hematomas; others had bone splinters in their meningeal tissue; still others leaked cerebrospinal fluid. Since the brain-trauma physicians were on a golf holiday in Aruba, the hospital administrator enlisted the custodians, providing them with condensed neurosurgical guidelines along with carte blanche authority to do whatever seemed necessary with their saws, chisels and staple guns. All the patients died.

The reason you haven’t read about this incident until now is because I made it up. It was the only way to accurately convey what we do to our trout streams whenever major flooding damages houses and highways. Consider the latest round of quack surgery performed on hundreds of streams in New York, Vermont and Massachusetts by clueless town and state highway departments and their equally clueless contractors who still believe floods can be controlled by shunting water downstream—a superstition as ancient and counterproductive as prescribing leeches for anemia. The hacking and gouging began last fall in response to Tropical Storm Irene, and is still underway. Most victims are the smaller, colder tributaries—i.e. spawning and nursery habitat for wild brook trout, rainbows and browns. When highway people work on streams they try to make them into highways.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is horrified by this futile, expensive and utterly counterproductive effort to control flooding. Service biologist Carl Schwartz had this to say: “You can rearrange high water and you can flood somebody else downstream, but you can’t stop flooding any more than you can stop rainfall. There is no such thing as ‘flood prevention.’ There are lots of people very anxious to put bulldozers into the streams—some because they think it’s the right thing to do, some because they’re paid by the hour. They have been wanting to do this for years.”

Noted fisheries biologist and angling author Ed Van Put (Trout Fishing in the Catskills and Beaverkill: The History of A River and its People) retired two years ago from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) after a 40-year career that included regulating stream alterations. “Hideous,” is how he describes post-Irene stream surgery.

“The first thing flood victims want to do is blame someone, generally the state, for not letting them clean out the stream,” Van Put told me. “The second thing they want to do is punish the stream. When I started with DEC in 1969, flood control was strictly pork-barrel politics. Politicians would call in the Army Corps of Engineers, and it would hire local contractors to bulldoze everything in sight. Eventually the feds realized this was making flooding worse. That’s when federal flood insurance came in. They said to the communities, if you identify the floodplains, zone them, and keep people out, we will give you low-cost flood insurance. But the politicians and the Corps convinced so many people for so many years that you have to ream out the streams, there’s still a generation that thinks this way.”

“Thank God Art Flick didn’t live to see this,” says his former fishing buddy, Howard Bartholomew, of Middleburgh, New York—my nominee for the new dean of Schoharie Creek, the once-rich wild brookie, brown and rainbow haven collected by the Mohawk River, and now even more famous, albeit for a sadder reason. “We’re heartbroken. We can repair our house, but not our streams. Wherever there was a tributary the New York Department of Transportation could get their bulldozers into they turned it into a gutter. Whatever invertebrates were in there were taken out. DOT flattened one side channel, an important refuge for brook trout, making a half-mile-long ramp perfect for dune buggies.”

All this and much more is the result of an August 30, 2011 announcement by Governor Andrew Cuomo that the Adirondack Park Agency and DEC would “waive permitting requirements for emergency repairs as a result of Hurricane Irene.”

“Basically the governor gave them [DOT and municipal and county highway workers] carte blanche,” says Norm McBride, DEC’s Region 4 fisheries manager. “And they ran with it . . . . A lot of the streams were ‘unprotected,’ meaning towns didn’t need permits to do work; but they still had to follow water-quality guidelines [which they didn’t do].”

“Can these streams be restored to what they were?” I asked.

“Highly unlikely,” McBride replied. “Yesterday we were at Little Schoharie Creek [a tributary of the main branch]. There are some possible monies available, but not enough to fix four and a half miles of channelized stream.” When I asked him what would have happened to the wild trout of Little Schoharie if DOT had just left it alone, McBride said, “I suspect they would be relatively unimpacted, though young of the year would have taken a hit. Now it’s just a gravel-lined sluiceway.”

I was surprised and grateful that McBride agreed to the interview. Perhaps it was because his superiors hadn’t yet informed him that, along with the Stream Protection Law, DEC has waived the First Amendment and forbidden agency personnel to speak with the public about the state’s post-Irene stream vandalism. Or if McBride had received that edict, perhaps he understood that no professional journalist would trust answers gleaned by filtering written questions through PR censors, as I was instructed to do by DEC’s press office.

McBride did note that Cuomo’s order contained a few conditions but that they weren’t adequately followed. One reason they weren’t followed, explains Dr. John Braico, who sits on Trout Unlimited’s national board and serves as secretary and resource vice president for the New York Council, was that Cuomo’s people overrode them. “DEC was ordered off sites multiple times,” he reports.

One DEC biologist whom I can’t name told me this: “The amount of unsupervised and completely irrational work that has gone on and is still going on is amazing.” As one example he cited the fate of upper Esopus Creek and its tributaries that drain the east-central Catskills: “They even dewatered a section of the main stem, maybe a mile, and moved it to one side, then flattened the bed with huge excavators, bulldozers and steam rollers. They could be doing restoration work that minimizes flooding while building better habitat. [A scientist] asked them what they were doing for fish habitat, and they said, ‘Well, we’re putting big rocks in randomly.’ After removing and flattening the substrate in one of the premier wild-trout fisheries in New York, that was their solution to fish habitat—random rocks. Stony Clove [a major Esopus tributary] was completely destroyed by local DPW guys who don’t have a clue. They made it a straight shot through the village of Phoenicia.”

When Ron Urban, president of the Catskill Mountains TU chapter and past president of the state council, stopped to photograph DOT contractors destroying Esopus Creek, agents from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (on hand supposedly to protect this part of the city’s water supply) took it upon themselves to suspend his civil rights, ordering him to move along. “Highway people take care of highways,” says Urban. “They have no training or experience with streams. You don’t tell a proctologist to go do a lobotomy.”

“People were waiting for this day,” declares Van Put. “They were stopping at my house to ask if it was true that they could go into streams and do whatever they wanted. When I was with DEC we would meet with the landowners or highway department officials whenever we had a flood event, and we’d write permits on the spot. While we tended to be liberal because of the circumstances, we had control over people who always wanted to do more than we’d let them. But to just waive the law, as the governor and DEC commissioner did, to give carte blanche to anyone with a bulldozer to go do whatever he wants, that’s insane.”

GAME AND FISH AGENCIES ACROSS the nation have published voluminous studies that painstakingly compare organisms they find in unaltered streams with those they find in what they call “channelized streams.” But they miss an important point—there is no such thing as a “channelized stream.” When a stream is channelized it ceases to be a “stream” and becomes a virtually lifeless gutter. Example: Johns Brook, in Keene Valley, New York—a brook no longer—used to hurry down from Adirondack State Park’s High Peaks Wilderness Area, swirling into the East Branch of the Ausable River. Last fall highway workers from the town and DOT denuded its banks, bulldozed its bottom flat, excised its riffles and pools, widened it from about 30 feet to more than 100, and excavated its boulders and gravel (along with the aquatic invertebrates that fed its once-prolific native brook trout) and dumped them in windrows that seal water from the old floodplain. “As a citizen and taxpayer, it makes me inexpressibly sad to know that the destruction of Johns Brook was done in my name and with my money,” writes Henrietta Jordan, a consultant for nonprofit organizations, who had loved Johns Brook since childhood.

A chastened DOT is attempting to repair the damage it did around the Route 73 bridge, but nothing is happening above that point because that work was done by the town, and the town blew its money converting Johns Brook to a sunbaked drainage ditch.

Speaking of all the trout streams ruined as a result of the governor’s order, DEC proclaims that it “will re-establish the variety of habitat that naturally occurs.” Of course it will not and cannot; that would take the pre-cut budget of the Pentagon. When I asked the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Carl Schwartz if machine-gouged gutters like the one that has replaced Johns Brook could be made into trout streams again he allowed that, while it wasn’t technically impossible, it would be like “putting Humpty Dumpty together again.”

What’s especially distressing about all the post-Irene stream reaming is that it’s still going on as I write and will doubtless continue after you read this. In the Ausable system alone there are 21 sites being worked on by DOT. And the Corps has identified what it calls “problem areas” at 41 sites. “That means heavy machinery will be going back into the river,” remarks Dan Plumley, of Adirondack Wild. “We don’t know if that work will be done with any insight about how a river works. If past is precedent, then we should be very worried. And the governor apparently is going to be releasing $9 million to towns and counties for removal of woody debris.” DEC will supposedly provide oversight.

But DEC appears AWOL. “When you have experts like Carl Schwartz saying the state couldn’t have done worse work you would expect some sort of public statement from the DEC commissioner [Joe Martens], but we’ve heard nothing,” says Plumley. Since September 2011 Adirondack Wild, TU and 18 other organizations have tried to get officials from DEC, DOT and the Corps to establish ecosystem-management principles for future flood response. The officials seem to be listening; but they’re not acting. And Plumley says no one has heard an apologetic peep from Cuomo.

THERE ISN’T AS MUCH DAMAGE IN Vermont and Massachusetts, but only because smaller areas were flooded. Where flooding occurred, stream reaming was no less egregious. The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources all but suspended that state’s stream-protection law, giving towns verbal permission to dredge streams as they saw fit. And those streams suffered every bit as badly as New York’s.

“The flooding was widespread, and there wasn’t a lot of oversight,” reports fisheries biologist Rich Kirn, of the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. “There was a declaration of emergency with vague language like ‘imminent threat’ that was open to interpretation by highway departments and individuals. There were conflicting authorities, and no written authorizations [until October]. When habitat is still intact fish populations will come back, but miles of stream were mined of all their gravel. We had skidders running up and down streams, taking every piece of woody debris. And the enforcement folks didn’t feel we had the authority to regulate that, which was frustrating.”

I was pleased—but hardly surprised—to hear the outrage expressed by Vermont’s new Fish and Wildlife commissioner, Pat Berry, a passionate and effective defender of native ecosystems. He had his fisheries people record damage done to trout habitat. And, with some of that data in hand, he wrote the Middlebury town manager complaining (as a resident of that town) about the gutterization of the Middlebury River: “The town executed [the state’s] guidance in an excessively heavy-handed manner that unnecessarily compromised the natural aquatic system, and has channelized huge sections of river in a manner that will ultimately exacerbate the threat of flood damage.” In his role of commissioner, Berry went on to publicly explain the facts of stream dynamics and warn about the dangers of stream reaming—not just to aquatic organisms but to humans and their property. “This is not about fish versus people,” he declared.

IN ALL MY RESEARCH I FAILED TO find a more appalling example of willful, unlawful trout-stream destruction than that which the town of Hawley, Massachusetts perpetrated on the Chickley River—one of the commonwealth’s most prolific producers of brown and brook trout, and an especially important nursery for Connecticut River Atlantic salmon fry. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) had issued an emergency order that suspended many provisions of the Wetlands Protection Act; but the few that remained were flung down and danced upon.

Now the Chickley River has been replaced by a 4.5-mile-long drainage ditch of the sort you’d expect to encounter in New York City’s Bowery. Its gravel and boulders have been ripped out and piled into berms, creating a nozzle that threatens to blast out downstream houses, roads and property.

“It’s just unbelievable what they’ve done,” says Dr. Caleb Slater, anadromous fish project leader for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. “In areas where the river was far from the road they just continued the channelization—digging up both sides of the bank and the bottom. There was even a section where they moved the river. They cut all the trees, dug the bank back a hundred feet, dumped all the fill in the active river channel, and dug a new channel through a hayfield. And they think it’s going to stay. Of course, it won’t. The river’s just going to chew that stuff up, spit it out and go back to the bedrock by the road. The damage is beyond just habitat. All the microorganisms and bugs were dug out of the stream and dumped on the bank. It’s going to take years to re-establish that community, let alone the fish.”

“In Hawley there were four projects, and they submitted paperwork for three,” says Dr. Tom French, assistant director of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program. “That’s one of the reasons the fourth [on the Chickley] is even more egregious. Three came through for review, and the big one we were so upset about did not. So it seems clear that they knew what was expected of them.”

When French’s colleague, Misty-Anne Marold, began photographing a large excavator destroying the Chickley River, the operator ordered her to cease and desist. She told him not to expect privacy outdoors, indicating that he especially should not expect it from her by pointing to the patch on her shirt. “The rocks had been moved to the banks and covered with river material,” she recalls. “There were no logs left, no leaves, no woody debris, nothing you think of in terms of stream ecology.”

“They took something special and treated it like the Corps of Engineers treated the Everglades in the 1950s,” says Paul Beaulieu, who just finished two terms as president of TU’s Pioneer Valley chapter. “Complete disregard not only of the ecological needs of the critters in the stream but of the flood process. They made the danger worse.”

Despite this brazen violation, DEP instructed its enforcement officials to look the other way.

The Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, on the other hand, responded as if it took its mission and mandate seriously, hitting the town with a stop-work order for destroying habitat of the longnose sucker and ocellated darner dragonfly and thereby violating the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. A week earlier, on November 16, the Connecticut River Watershed Council’s Andrea Donlon (assisted by Trout Unlimited) had alerted the public.

Finally, on November 30, DEP felt sufficient heat to order the town’s contractor, ET & L Corporation, to remove the berms that endangered downstream residents or face major fines and jail time. ET & L has appealed the citation, noting that its contract stated that “all work will be performed at the direction of the Town or designated town representative.”

Who pays for this kind of expensive, dangerous boondoggling? You do—mostly with your state and federal tax dollars. In the case of the Chickley River, however, it looks like you might get a reprieve (unless you live in Hawley). Hawley Conservation Commission chair Lloyd Crawford reports that the channelization project was rejected by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Highway Administration, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. But, hoping for reimbursement, the selectmen authorized it with town funds. They never informed the Conservation Commission about their project. Nor did they inform the town Finance Committee.

Selectmen chair Darwin Clark tells me he doesn’t know what the project cost, but Crawford says he’s heard that, not counting the berm removal required by DEP, the figure is $361,000. Because Crawford carried out his legal obligation by alerting DEP that the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act was being violated, more than 100 townspeople have signed a petition demanding Crawford’s dismissal.

Crawford, Slater, French, Marold and the other dedicated resource professionals and public-sector fish-and-wildlife advocates throughout the Northeast who helped me with this article want to ensure, through this kind of publicity, that all the ruined trout streams didn’t die in vain, that important lessons will be learned from their demise. I share that aspiration.

Still, I fear we may be fooling ourselves. Stream reaming and resulting flood enhancement (rather than flood control) has been happening ever since Caucasians arrived in North America, and before that in Europe and Asia. Northeast trout streams were gutterized in response to the 1996 flood, the 1998 flood, the 2006 flood, and the April 2011 flood. Nothing was learned by the general public who demanded that work or by the bureaucrats who ordered it up. So it’s a stretch to believe that now, after the August 27, 2011 flood caused by Tropical Storm Irene, they all get it.

But let us hope, speak and write.

--from Fly Rod & Reel