The ice pile on the West Branch of the AuSable River was created in recent weeks by construction crews working to replace the Wilmington Bridge, built in 1934 and located just upstream. The crews broke up ice and moved it below the dam in order to create open water so they could work off river barges.
The state Department of Transportation is overseeing the project and received permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Kelley Tucker, executive director for the river association, said she realizes the operation was permitted. However, she said the size of the pile could cause problems with the wrong combination of weather.
“Certainly, if we get a terrible rain event and ongoing flooding, it’s going to exacerbate the situation,” she said. “But I’m not as concerned about the volume of water as I am, at this point, about how that ice is going to break up and how it’s going to go down the river. We’re guessing here. I think everyone’s kind of guessing what’s going to happen next.”
She said the river rose about six inches on February 18, the first day of ice removal, as a result of the pile. Since then there hasn’t been any more significant water level changes.
Wilmington fly-fishing guide Rachel Finn estimated that the ice pile is at least 25 feet high at its tallest point. It’s covers much of the width of the river, which is a few hundred feet across. She said the hole below the dam is very deep and is home to many trout in the winter months.
“I’m really upset what it might have done to the fish population,” Finn said. “That was the primary holdover pool for the next couple of miles, at least.”
The stretch below the Wilmington dam is undeveloped so there is plenty of opportunity for any large ice chunks to break up before they reach any developed areas. Ausable Forks is roughly 10 miles downstream. One immediate concern is that the large chunks could potentially reach the Haselton Bridge, about two miles below the dam, and created an ice jam there.
“If we see that happening we’re going to have a little time to react, and the town is now aware the pile is there,” Tucker said. “I think we’re all watching it.”
The DEC is also monitoring the river since being notified by the Ausable River Association on March 2. The DEC refused to comment for this article.
Jay Supervisor Randy Douglas said he’s concerned about flooding on both the east and west branches of the Ausable River, but not necessarily because of the ice pile in Wilmington.
“The east branch and the west branch are thicker than I’ve seen my entire life,” he said. “I grew up here on Main Street, next to the Ausable River. I’ve never seen it this thick, so it really does worry me.
“I don’t know if (the ice pile) is going to make any difference whatsoever. What really is going to make the difference is the amount of rainfall that we get. Sunshine is beautiful because it just melts it away, but if we get some rain with it, then it creates havoc.”
Wilmington supervisor Randy Preston is out of town and was unavailable for an interview.
Tucker said moving at least some of the ice to a nearby field would have been a good option for the DOT. She admits it may have been expensive but her organization may have been able to help with funding. The organization would like to be included in the planning of future projects that could alter the hydrology or structure of the river. The organization is also recommending that the DEC stock additional mature trout in this section of river this spring.
DOT spokesman Bryan Viggiani said his agency appreciates the river association’s suggestions and that his department is working with the DEC on the issue. He said the ice removal is mostly complete, except for clearing ice that freezes overnight.
The project is expected to last until June, finishing up before many tourists arrive for the summer.
Main photo by Brendan Wiltse: The ice pile below the Wilmington Dam. Secondary photo by Mike Lynch: DOT crews work on the Wilmington Bridge.