LENOX -- The Hoosic River Revival (HRR), a community-based, nonprofit, private organization composed of area residents, believes the time has come to make the Hoosic River in North Adams an asset.
The goal of the HRR is to make the river suitable for fishing, boating and swimming; to have it bordered by biking and walking trails running through parklands; and for it to be a place where people come for business and socializing. In keeping with that goal, it has been working with consultants, city planners and river restoration engineers to prepare an Options Assessment. Recently completed, this assessment provides many ideas for enhancing the 212 miles of the Hoosic River, and the downtown area immediately adjacent to the river.
In the 1950s, the Army Corps of Engineers built flood control chutes which funnel the North and South Branches through downtown North Adams, and they merge at the west end of Mass MoCA. According to HRR, these chutes have done their job; the River is no longer a danger during heavy rains or spring runoff. And, due to tighter environmental regulations from the federal government, the river presents no health threat to the city's residents. Unfortunately, the chutes have both tamed it and prevented the public from seeing, using, and appreciating it.
Due to the channelization, Mass. DEP has assessed the entire 2.4 miles of the flood control chutes as "non-support" with respect to aquatic life use. Water is significantly warmer in the flood control chutes due to dramatically reduced water depth, poor aeration and little overhead cover. These conditions are inhospitable to fish, while the smooth surface prohibits plant and macro-invertebrate growth necessary for any functioning aquatic habitat.
This impact is particularly unfortunate in the upper Hoosic River, which is one of the few cold-water rivers in Massachusetts containing populations of native brook trout and naturally reproducing brown trout. A healthy population of trout is not only an ecological benefit, but also an economic advantage, attracting anglers to a region heavily dependent on tourism. The flood control chutes severely limit this habitat.
With structural maintenance of the 60-year-old Hoosic flood control project a future concern, North Adams should consider creative ways to include a more accessible river in its new image.
According to the Berkshire County Regional Planning Commission, "During the time of industrial growth, residents abused the river. Now they ignore it. Yet the river is far cleaner and more attractive than it used to be. While considering ways for tourism to take up the slack of lost industrial jobs, Northern Berkshire could benefit from attending to this exciting and potentially useful resource."
"The flood chutes are ugly. But it could be different," says Judith Grinnell, leader of the HRR.
Residents of North Adams have a choice in how they want to engineer the river in order to guard against flooding while at the same time restoring its recreational and ecological value. Adams has already initiated a habitat restoration project, aimed at enhancing trout habitat in the channelized section of the river running through downtown Adams.
Flood control projects are increasingly incorporating natural designs that promote aquatic habitat and public access. Some projects are so successful in replicating a natural channel that they are virtually indistinguishable from unengineered rivers. While intense development of the banks of the Hoosic River makes a completely natural, de-channelized river a near impossibility, there is great potential for improving habitat, promoting recreation, and increasing public access and enjoyment of the river.
A new method of increasing public access and enjoyment of urban rivers consists of designing "playscape" paddle runs, where the flow is concentrated and whitewater conditions are created with the placement of small grade (2-3 feet) drops for paddlers. This design may be an attractive possibility for the constrained sections of the river in North Adams and, if properly designed, it may improve fish habitat at the same time as attracting paddlers and tourists.
Another relatively quick and inexpensive option of habitat improvement should be considered for the areas of the flood control project consisting of rip-rap levees. Currently, operations and maintenance protocols defined by the Army Corps of Engineers require North Adams and Adams to mow the sides and tops of the levees and remove vegetation growing in the rip-rap in order to maintain the stability of these structures. Because of that, the river flowing through these sections of the flood control projects is even less shaded than the areas where it flows through the concrete channels.
While the lack of vegetation detracts from the aesthetics of a "natural" stream, the increased exposure to sunlight causes an increased and greater variability of stream temperature, which adversely impacts trout. HRR believes the possibility of planting vegetation that will not interfere with the structural integrity of the levee structures should be investigated.
The HRR is working in partnership with the Hoosic River Watershed Association. Grinnell pointed out that HooRWA is concerned with the entire three-state, 70-mile Hoosic River, while the HRR is concentrating on the city's sections of the river. A planned bike path linking North Adams to Williamstown probably will run near the river for much of its way is another tie into this revitalizing venture.
"It won't be easy," said Grinnell. "There are difficulties in altering the flood chutes, and expenses. But the concept is in line with changes in state and federal policies that are looking to make rivers more wildlife and people friendly by removing dams, restoring banks and encouraging more natural answers to controlling the waters."
HRR wants to share the Options Assessment information (a short PowerPoint and Q&A presentation) with local organizations. Call Grinnell at (413) 212-2996 or email HoosicRiverRevival@gmail.com.
To reach Gene Chague: Berkwoodsandwaters@roadrunner.com or (413) 637-1818.