Catskills anglers call flood-relief work counterproductive Trout fishery damaged by gravel and silt in two dozen streams


ROSCOE, N.Y. - The flood that swamped the western Catskills last January seemed insatiable, plucking trees out by their roots, plunging bridges into streams, wrecking homes and stores and leaving eight people dead.

No one in this countryside famed for its 2-foot wild trout could remember anything like it, and federal officials declared the flood the state's worst calamity in 24 years.

Here and in the other mountain villages in Delaware and Sullivan counties just beyond the Borscht Belt, people set to work, with the gritty resourcefulness that is a point of native pride and with $8.3 million in federal and state emergency money.

Throughout the winter and into summer, they launched an armada of bulldozers and tractor-driven shovels that reopened clogged roads and culverts under bridges and cleared the muck out of vital streams where brook, brown and rainbow trout spawn.

Now some people are saying that the flood relief was almost as harmful as the flood, that sloppy or excessive work had damaged two dozen glistening brooks and winding rivers, like the Beaverkill, that form the heart of this region's economy as the trout fishing capital of the East Coast.

No evidence of falloff

With the spawning season just beginning, there is no evidence yet of a falloff in trout. But conservation groups like Trout Unlimited, a national organization of 95,000 members that strives to protect fish habitats, say that gravel and silt disturbed by excessive repair work ended up blocking tributaries that trout must enter to spawn. The work, these critics say, has also muddied or warmed cool-water pools in which the trout gather to rest or escape predators.

"The heavy equipment work represents a disaster for trout and the insects they feed on, one that will take years of careful work and lots of taxpayers' money to restore," said Jock Conyngham, a field biologist for Trout Unlimited. "Much of the critical habitat is now compromised."

Conyngham said much of the repair work was done carelessly and to excess as contractors tried to capitalize on the windfall of federal aid. Enforcement of environmental regulations, he said, was lax. Though 1,000 permits were issued for stream repairs in Delaware County, the hardest hit of 41 counties affected by flooding, not a single summons for improper work was issued.

Environmental officials and local public works administrators conceded that some work had created as many problems as it cured, but they said those trouble spots were being repaired. Overall, the officials said, government workers and private contractors did the best they could, given the public outcry and pressure to free marooned families who needed to buy food and get to work.

Strict supervision lacking

"It was a natural disaster that tested all our resources," said Anthony Adamczyk, director of Region 4 of the state Department of Environmental Conservation. "In all honesty, it was not a time to get into a strong enforcement mode given the emotion that was there."

Strict supervision by an understaffed agency, he added, was not possible given the disaster's magnitude. Wayne Reynolds, public works commissioner of Delaware County, attributed most the damage to the flood, which in some cases blanketed streams from bank to bank with rock and sand, leaving them impassable for trout.

Fishing this season has been better than in the drought-ridden previous two years, and state biologists suggested that Trout Unlimited was exaggerating the problem's gravity, since artificially raised fish outnumber wild fish in many local waterways.

But some of the men and women who fly fish the 87-mile-long Beaverkill and the linked east and west branches of the Delaware River say they have noticed more murkiness in the once vodka-clear water and a drop-off in the aquatic insects the trout feed on.

On a recent Monday, Bob LeDonne, a retired television news writer who has been fishing for 50 years, was wading hip-deep in the Beaverkill, flogging the air with his line until his fly landed in a spot he liked. He said he wondered whether the bulldozers working in nearby Horse Brook might have turned the river muddier and made it more difficult for fish to see his flies.

"Before, the river was so clear you were tempted to drink it on a hot day," he said. "It's tough enough fishing, but especially when the odds are against you like that."

Old Route 17 runs alongside Beaver Kill and crosses Horse Brook over a small bridge. Photographs taken for Reynolds show that debris seemed to fill a sizable stretch of the stream above the bridge, leaving only a small trickle into the Beaver Kill. The debris was cleaned out in the spring.

"The entire upstream channel was level bank to bank," Reynolds said. "I just put it back to what it was pre-existing."

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