Report findings on effects of responses to flooding from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee

by Diane Dobry and Jessica Travis

Findings on research conducted to assess the impact of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee on Schoharie Creek Tributaries by SUNY Cobleskill’s Departments of Fisheries, Wildlife and Environmental Science was presented at the Mohawk Symposium on March 21, 2014. Participating researchers included SUNY Cobleskill students Eric Malone, from San Diego, California, and Alec Zerbain, from Ellicotville, New York, as well as campus professors Mark Cornwell, Ben German and Barbra Brabetz.   SUNY Cobleskill graduate and current Schoharie County Soil and Water Conservation Stream Manager Peter Nichols played a vital role in the study, additionally. From their data they have determined that significant negative impact from both Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee to regional streams was not directly related to the storms, but rather from human intervention that occurred after the heavy water accumulation. The eight streams observed within the Schoharie County area include Bearkill, House, Keyserkill, Catskill, Little Schoharie, Manorkill, Platterkill and Panther.

Upon the initial development of this research, Eric Malone and Alec Zerbian set out to examine how the hurricanes, which developed stream flows the rate of Niagara Falls, had altered the streams ecology. When compared to the information collected prior to the 500-year flood event, it was discovered that, surprisingly, the storm itself did not cause the most damage. Instead, the streams suffered the most debilitating negative effects as a result of the impact of human intervention, such as driving bulldozers through the stream to help drain water.  Water quality, fish and aquatic bug populations are dramatically declining in areas where these interferences occurred. In contrast, streams that were not hindered by any human interaction are experiencing opposite results—the fish and aquatic bug population is increasing and the water quality is steadily improving.

This raises attention as to how, as a community, large-scale stream flooding can best be managed in the future. From their extensive research, Malone, Zerbian and the rest of the team hope to stress that massive flood events are unfortunate circumstances that have a high probability of happening again due to the ever-continuing climate change. Even though it is clear as to why many individuals seek immediate actions to remove excessive water accumulation from their land, it is essential that streams are left in a natural state rather than altering the site to facilitate drainage. Although the study was primarily focused on flooding and the ecology of the streams, the researchers stress the significance of their findings as a blue print for the best response to the occurrence of massive flooding and how specific actions can affect wildlife and the environment.

The team is currently striving to seek ways to help educate others in order to prevent future damage to the streams and the wildlife that rely on those waterways. They are collecting data and providing it to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, as well as working alongside the Schoharie County Soil and Water Conservation District to inform and persuade action with legislators, engineers and communities. They understand the importance of disseminating the proper information to avoid further damage to the area’s water and wildlife.

Recently, Malone and Zerbian presented their undergraduate research to the SUNY and CUNY systems, as well as state legislators. Both students are passionate about their research and are proud of doing a study on such a major scale, which in turn has been the driving force behind the college’s program.Recently, Eric and Alec were invited to share their research at the 144th Annual National meeting of the American Fisheries Society in Quebec in the fall.  This is an extremely prestigious and competitive symposium of some of the finest fisheries research in the world.

Eric Malone and Alec Zerbian have done a terrific job a complicated project,” said Associate Professor Mark Cornwell.  “Through working on this stream project they have brought attention to the three year plight of Schoharie County streams after Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee.  Trout streams in our County are sacred and these two gentlemen are working to help us better understand the forces that shape these streams and their fish communities.”