Flirting With Disaster

Stagnant water and exposed bottom at Stilesville’s productive riffs on Tuesday morning October 6th

New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection chose the prelude to brown trout spawning and a period with miniscule flows coming in from tributaries to cut the release from Cannonsville Reservoir and endanger much of the river’s aquatic life. Issuing a last minute statement to FUDR and other river stakeholders, they planned a day long zero flow duration to fix a leaky pipe and allow USGS to remove debris and recalibrate their gaging station. As the word spread Monday, striking fear into the hearts of anglers, local conservation groups went to work to do what they could to avert disaster.

None of the typical standing waves at the chute above Balls Eddy, the pool itself looking stagnant

Various stories surged through the community, and it is hard to determine still exactly what occurred, though if the gages can be believed, the river never got to zero flow. NYCDEP did listen to FUDR and other stakeholders and mitigated their plans. The recalibrated Stilesville gage shows low flows in the realm of 45 to 50 cfs. This morning the flow is 261 cfs and rising gently.

Per USGS, the red starts indicate measured flows taken before and after recalibration.

I spent Tuesday morning running along the river from Hancock to Stilesville, taking photos to document the impending disaster, before learning that an agreement had been reached. I was relieved that there were no signs of dead fish, though the exposed riffles caused me to expect the worst for the invertebrates. According to the measured readings from the Stilesville gage, release flow was approximately 60 cfs during the time these photos were taken.

I’m no news reporter and again, there are various bits of information floating around about this near tragedy, but my thanks go out to all of those who went to the table at the last hour to grind out an agreement that allowed the necessary maintenance to be done without dewatering the river and possibly destroying the best wild trout fishery in the eastern United States. I would love to hear what a qualified aquatic biologist might conclude after examining the details of the drawdown and assessing the amount of exposed bottom. All of us in the community would like to know just how much the insect life of the West Branch may have declined as a result of the events of this week.

This angler was waiting on an exposed river rock when I arrived, taking flight to his higher perch upon my intrusion. He was obviously expecting breakfast with the dropping water levels. I hope he captured himself a nice , fat chub!

Natural disasters come and go with little hope of mitigation by man at the time of occurrence. Long term thinking, scientific study and action is another matter. Immediate manmade disasters can be sidestepped with common sense and a little environmental responsibility. Here in the Catskills we are breathing a sigh of relief that a mixture of concerned and reasonable people and those two vital ingredients averted one on a trout river we love.

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