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A wild Adirondack river is restored to cope with climate change

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Ten years ago, Hurricane Irene dumped nearly a foot of rain in sections of the Adirondacks. Rivers and towns were flooded and roads and bridges ripped apart.

The Ausable, one of the rivers hit hardest by Irene, has since been re-engineered to handle more extreme storms.

Along a stretch of the Ausable River north of Wilmington, tall pine trees tower over one bank, while on the other are little yellow and white wildflowers and green bushes and shrubs. Whiteface Mountain rises up in the distance. This place is known as the “dream mile.”

“It’s pretty gorgeous,” said Kelley Tucker, standing along the riverbank. “Look, you’ve got a wetland and a flood plain and a river.”

Tucker is executive director of the Ausable River Association and recently led a tour along sections of the river that the group has helped restore in recent years.

“There’s a little problem,” Tucker said about one section of the river. “The problem’s been here since about 1780. You’re standing on it. It’s the road.”

If the road weren’t there, the river could flood occasionally, as rivers do, and no one would worry. But when you build roads along the wild rivers — and homes along the roads — flooding becomes a problem that can upend people’s lives.

Numerous lives were upended a decade ago during Hurricane Irene, when the Ausable overflowed and flooded towns like Keene and Jay. But Tucker said the Ausable River had already been eroding for years, and Irene took advantage of that.

“There was nothing new in Irene for the river,” said Tucker. “It was just like, ‘Oh, vulnerability. I got this.’”

Destructive conditions

The floodwaters from Irene and other storms widened the river’s banks. When a river gets wider and more shallow, the current doesn’t move rocks and other debris downstream as well, which leads to more destruction during a flood.

“It was flat and still and silent,” Tucker said.

Engineering nature

In 2015, local landowners partnered with the association to return the river to its previous state. They wanted the trout to return and a river that could handle more flooding.

Over the next three summers, a crew re-engineered this stretch of river, digging out the middle to deepen it and building up the sides to make it more narrow. They placed huge rocks and tree stumps at certain points to direct the flow and provide habitat for fish.

Now what you see standing on the banks of the dream mile is what looks like a wild, free-flowing river, but it has been engineered by humans.

“Every single thing up there to the tall tree in the bend where the island is, we put here,” Tucker said. “That nice riffle? That’s ours.”

Since the hurricane, the association has restored dozens of sites along the river, removing dams, widening culverts and retrofitting bridges.

Rivers like the Ausable would eventually restore themselves after floods, but that could take centuries. Tucker sees these projects as a balance between human needs and environmental realities.

“We want public safety,” said Tucker. “We like our infrastructure not to be affected so profoundly by flooding. So our response tends to be, ‘What can you move and what is essential?’”

Overflow channel

In some places, moving rocks and riverbeds is easier than moving roads and homes. The next stop on the tour is a section of the Ausable 10 miles east, in Jay.

Huge yellow trucks slosh through the water, moving dirt and rocks from the middle to the outer banks. Here, too, the river had gotten wider and shallower since Irene and had split into two channels.

Gary Henry from the Ausable River Association said they’re engineering it so the second channel is just used for overflow.

“Anything more than your average annual high flows,” said Henry, “the water will be able to come over this and use this side-channel for relief and get up onto its floodplain and dissipate some of its energy before it would go downstream and ravage some town.”

Violent storms like Irene are rare in this area, but climate change is affecting that, and the cost to repair roads and bridges will continue to climb.

A self-sustaining stream

One of the last stops on the tour is just a few miles south in Upper Jay, which got hit hard during Irene.

“This was sort of the epicenter. The road was chewed up in several places because the water came around this way, both sides,” said Tucker, pointing upriver along the banks.

The river is wide and shallow here and a bend in it is aimed right at the road. Tucker points to the big boulders on the opposite bank.

“I think of that as the cannonballs aimed at Ausable Forks if we don’t get this job done.”

Tucker has applied for a grant with the DEC and has backing from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

This river is at least a decade away from where Tucker would like it be.

“The key piece to the puzzle for us is always creating that self-sustaining stream that can reach its potential and can do its own maintenance, rebuilding its own native forms,” said Tucker. “We think that’s the key, that’s the low-cost key in the long run.”

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