By now, most of us who spend a lot of time hanging around creeks have heard about the so-called emergency repairs done to protected trout streams in the Catskills and the Adirondacks in the wake of Tropical Storms Irene and Lee.
Numerous environmental groups, including the New York State Council of Trout Unlimited, have lodged protests with Gov. Andrew Cuomo for issuing a month-long blanket exemption from stream protection laws — an “emergency authorization” that was supposed to cover only imminent threats to life, property, etc.
Local governments and property owners appear to have taken the emergency authorization as a green light to go in and bulldoze, without penalty, streams they’ve wanted to bulldoze for years. The result has left streams all over eastern New York scraped flat and smooth, with sloping sides, like irrigation ditches, and local officials demanding the emergency authorization be extended so they can continue bulldozing.
This kind of work obviously ruins trout habitat. But channelizing streams also makes them more dangerous, not less. Removing the boulders and contours — the “roughness” of the streambed — serves to accelerate water.
Downstream of these channels, the next big flood — and floods like this happen far more often than they used to — will cause even more damage.
Ed Van Put, author of “Trout Fishing in the Catskills” and longtime resident of Livingston Manor on the Willowemoc Creek, who recently retired from a 40-year career with the Department of Environmental Conservation, said there’s no reason for month-long emergency authorizations. DEC staff can evaluate flood damage case by case and write permits for necessary repairs.
“By the time the water got low enough where you could put equipment in the streams, we would be in the field,” Van Put said, recalling his own experiences permitting emergency stream work after floods. “When I went in the field and wrote permits daily, there was no question that you were liberal with your permits and you let people do what in normal times you wouldn’t let them do. But to give them carte blanche is crazy.”
Obviously, a certain amount of emergency construction work is required after any flood, and especially after storms like Irene and Lee. You can’t leave uprooted trees jammed under bridges or culverts packed full of gravel. You have to rebuild streamside roads and bridges and driveways.
In fact, one of the most environmentally minded people I know got a power shovel into the small stream behind his house for fear the house itself would be threatened. Some work just can’t be helped.
But observers say the highway departments and landowners didn’t stop at emergency repairs.
“It looks like after the road work was done, that additional work was done, removing large substrates, large rocks and making the channel look more like a big canal,” said Timothy Mihuc, a professor of environmental science at SUNY Plattsburgh and director of the Lake Champlain Research Institute. “It’s the additional work that’s causing all the alarm.”
It doesn’t alarm James Eisel, chairman of Delaware County Board of Supervisors. In a news release from Assemblyman Pete Lopez (R-C Schoharie), Eisel and his counterparts in Greene and Schoharie demand the emergency authorization be extended.
“We have tried for years to get in and clean up the stream beds, and it’s always been an uphill battle,” Eisel said. “It’s time for them to do away with the permits and allow us to clean up. If there’s another storm, without giving us the opportunity to clean up the streams, the results will be catastrophic.”
After the big floods of 1996 and 2005 there was talk about restoring stream channels to disperse the power of floods, of reconnecting streams to their flood plains, of buying and removing structures from flood-prone areas. A Trout Unlimited vice president told me five years ago there had been a “sea change” in the flood response in New York.
And yet here we are, doing things the way they were done 50 years ago.
“It always goes back to the fact that they have to ‘do something,’ ” Van Put said. “I’ve had town supervisors tell me, ‘I know it isn’t doing any good, but it makes people feel better that we’re doing something.’ That is insane.
“To me, the governor just pushing the law aside was an outrage,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Let’s do away with speed limits for a month.’ ”