While water quality in the Ausable River is generally good and the river retains much of its scenic beauty, challenges to the its health and resilience are increasingly evident. The Ausable River Association (AsRA) has documented significant impairments to the river. Miles of undercut banks, lacking vegetation and collapsing into the river, release fine sediment. Entrenched stream channels block access to the floodplain, where flood waters might be absorbed, their force dissipated. Hardened banks and straightened channels proliferate, aggravating erosion. And road crossings with undersized culverts, blocking the passage of aquatic organisms and exacerbating flood damage, are too often the norm along rural roads.
Hurricane Irene in 2011 wreaked havoc on this rural region and highlighted weaknesses in the river's resiliency. Its inability to manage flood flows led to devastating effects on ecosystems, human and wild. With climate change predictions indicating that flood events will increase in frequency, restoring the natural functioning of the Ausable is an essential goal.
AsRA uses a three-tiered approach to restoration:
- We lead stream restoration projects that rebuild the river's equilibrium one section at a time. After careful assessment and planning, we manipulate a channel with machinery, building natural wood and native rock structures in the stream and/or along banks to re-establish the river's natural slope, dimension, and pattern. Such structures are long-lasting (though not often visible), integrate with the stream and scenery, and provide essential habitat for aquatic organisms. Soon after completion, evidence of this type of work is minimal, and the stream segment is stabilized and capable of maintaining its equilibrium.
- AsRA coordinates a model program to address priority culverts in the Ausable watershed. Culvert replacements often require the restoration of a stream that had been forced under a road, often through too small of a plastic or metal pipe. We start by measuring to find the slope, dimension, and profile the stream needs to efficiently move sediment and water and remain in equilibrium. Designs are engineered to maximize water flow in at least a 100-year flood and minimize risk to roads. We restore the stream, install a culvert over it like a lid, and resurface the road.
- Finally, where a stream is stable, we restore riparian corridors. We identify native tree and plant species hardy enough to handle floods, ice, and wind and that provide habitat for a diversity of wildlife. We plant specimens large enough to have a survival rate of better than 50% with little regular care. Riparian buffers stabilize banks with dense root systems, absorb an amazing amount of water, and provide cooling shade that help to reduce water temperatures, allowing trout and other aquatic organisms to flourish.
All of this work relies on strong partnerships. AsRA's natural stream restoration partners include the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Trout Unlimited, and Essex County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD); our culvert partners include The Nature Conservancy's Adirondack Chapter, FWS, and SWCD. Both partnerships have completed several successful projects and we look forward to continuing and refining our efforts. Both also rely on strong relationships with municipal highway departments, town and county governments, and willing landowners – relationships AsRA has been building for close to 20 years.
AsRA acts as coordinator and project manager, bringing stakeholders to the table, moving planning and implementation forward, keeping landowners apprised and engaged, overseeing permitting, educating the public, gathering baseline stream data, assisting in project design, and providing long-term monitoring to understand outcomes better. We are the primary local resource for information about the Ausable River system – quick to the scene after a storm event or a collapsed bank, intimate with the river, the landowners, and the local community.
Read a summary of Natural Stream Restoration.