A Catskill Catalog: March 14, 2012

“The river is the carpenter of its own edifice.” So said Luna Leopold, engineer, geologist and father of modern water management.

I heard that quote from Wayne Reynolds, Delaware County Commissioner of Public Works, when he made a presentation last week in Fleischmanns. Forty people crowded the monthly meeting of Fleischmanns First, a village-focused civic organization of which I am a member. The commissioner came to talk about village bridges.

But you can’t talk about bridges without talking about rivers. Can’t talk about the spot where the stream jumped the bridge without talking about the spot, miles upstream, where the stream-channel eroded and shifted.

It’s a system, an interconnected whole. That’s the message the commissioner came to deliver. We have to think about the whole system: mountainside run-off, step-pool headwater-creek, riffle-pool valley stream, and the floodplain.
Ah, the floodplain.

Expert in the management of the floodplain is the Delaware County Soil and Water Conservation District, established by the county Board of Supervisors in 1946. The agency “provides technical assistance to landowners and local governments for the wise use and conservation of Delaware County’s soil and water resources.”

Graydon Dutcher is program coordinator of the DCSWCD Stream Program. He joined Commissioner Reynolds in Fleischmanns, defining and explaining the science behind Stream Corridor Management, using a locally photographed power-point presentation and a cool mechanical streambed simulator-table.

“The floodplain is the area bordering a stream, constructed by the river and inundated during periods of high flow.” In other words, the floodplain is the area where water will run when there’s too much water to run in the channel we’d prefer.

In water mechanics, “Quantity equals area times velocity,” explained Reynolds. “The Good Lord will determine velocity through the amount of rain and snow-melt we get,” he said, with a smile. And we are getting more.

Precipitation has been steadily increasing in New York State, year-by-year, decade-by-decade, since 1900. “Something is changing in our climate,” Commissioner Reynolds conceded. Climate change is real when you’re responsible for over 400 bridges and 260 miles of road, and you’ve eye-witnessed the destruction caused by the extreme weather events of the past 20 years.

Wayne Reynolds’ eyes watered-over with emotion when he considered weather’s cost in loss of life, remembering, among others, Fleischmanns’ own recent loss in Tropical Storm Irene, Leah Stern.
“The Catskills’ climate includes high rainfall, compared to the rest of the state,” the commissioner pointed out, regaining his composure. “The state is getting wetter, and the Catskills are the wettest region in the state.”

So, more rain is inevitable. It’s a hundred-year trend. Not much we can do about that. But Q=va, quantity of water equals velocity (how much is coming down how fast) times area (the land available for that water to go).

“The stream will size itself to transport water and sediment,” Reynolds explained, paraphrasing Luna Leopold’s carpenter metaphor.

Stream corridor management uses science to intervene in stream flow, streambed, flood corridor, floodplain, the whole ball-of-wax, to mitigate future flood events. The rivers will rise. Wise, scientific management can mitigate – not eliminate, but lessen and soften – the effects of flooding.
Several of our area streams have received that scientifically-inspired attention. Back on August 28, Vly Creek came roaring out of Halcott to rip up Fleischmanns. That stream has received a real makeover since, with tight channel-banks degraded to bring water flow to grade, and flat, gravel-washed dry floodplains constructed to accept high-end velocity.

Similar things have been done in Ulster County, down in Allaben, where the Irene-speeded Esopus had eaten half of Route 28. The road is back, and the south bank has been degraded, the scrub brought down to flat gravel floodplain, any beyond-our-control water velocity invited to size itself away from the state highway.

Let the Good Lord manage the velocity, the commissioner would say. We’ll manage the area. Q=va. Science!

Feels like a welcome change from the pre-Irene knee-jerk ethic of most environmental authorities: keep-your-maple-sappin’-hands off all water courses!
Graydon Dutcher’s presentation was called “Working With Stream Processes.” By working with the processes of nature, informed by science, we can manipulate our environment to sustain our community.

“Sustainability is our first concern in communities like this,” Wayne Reynolds told his Fleischmanns audience. Science on our side can help us sustain.