From muddy water to hot water

Regulatory agencies launch investigation surrounding river work, permits

 

Courtesy Photo

Heavy equipment crosses the Cadwell Slough during the performance of bridge maintenance work April 19-22.

Following reports from several area residents, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) have launched an investigation into bridge work conducted by the town of Saratoga between April 19 and April 22.

According to director of public works Jon Winter, the work in question involved reinforcing the abutments that secure the walking bridge connecting Veterans Island to the West bank of the Platte. The "armoring" – buttressing the bridge foundation with gravel and boulders – "should have been done when the bridge was originally put up (two years ago)," Winter said. A different mayor and director of public works were serving Saratoga when the bridge was first put in.

"Obviously we don't want the bridge going down the river (during a flood)," Winter said of the rationale for the project. This way, "if we get high, high water then the bridge abutment – the foundations of the bridge – are protected from being scoured away," Winter explained.


To transport the rock needed for armoring, town workers repeatedly drove a medium-sized front end-loader across a low-water crossing connecting the East bank of the Platte to Veterans Island. "Cadwell Slough," as that part of the river is called, is shallower than the main channel of the Platte, and during low water periods it does not flow at all. By mid-April however, there was a sizeable flow of water moving through the channel, carrying whatever sediment the heavy equipment stirred up downriver.

This sediment drew the ire of several area residents. In a letter dated April 4 from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD), that agency recommended "that instream work not occur during the spring rainbow trout spawning period (March 15 through May 15)." That letter was in reference to proposed gravel bar clearing near the HWY 130 bridge, which was postponed until the trout spawn was over.

Similar water-turbidity issues would seem to present themselves in the case of the bridge-armoring project, but the town moved ahead regardless.

"We didn't get any additional permits (from USACE) because we were just crossing the stream," Winter said. Crossing the slough with heavy equipment has "been done for decades – and it's probably been done between March 15 and May 15," Winter said.

That squares with local resident and riverfront property owner Sally Patton's perceptions. Patton, who submitted documentation of the work to USACE said she's "spent 35 years watching this strategy of 'Oh, we'll just go ahead and do it,'" from the town. "This is just how they do stuff around here," Patton summed things up. She pointed out that "it's very difficult to get any after-the-fact action," if Saratoga breaks rules.

Saratoga fishing guide and Trout Unlimited member Steve Heinitz concurred with that sentiment. "Any civil engineer out of college can figure out the time frame on this stuff," Heinitz said, scoffing at the notion that the Saratoga officials didn't know they could be disturbing the trout spawn. "As far as I'm concerned, they were told (not to work in the river during this period)," Heinitz said.

Both Patton and Heinitz were concerned with what they perceived as the town's cavalier attitude towards regulations, and the effect this was having on the Platte's health. "I'm interested in why they would just completely disregard information that they'd clearly received about not increasing turbidity during these time frames," Patton said.

As riverfront property owners, Patton and Heinitz also felt they should be in the loop about work scheduled for the river. "I'm directly affected – in my home, on my property – by what they just did," Patton said.

Heinitz noted "all that sediment (stirred up during the project) flushes right on down the river past my house and everything else."

More broadly, as residents of the Valley, Heinitz and Patton say they felt compelled to come forward to defend what they see as Saratoga's most precious resource. "I'm just tired of not saying anything, and no one else speaking up for this water – because this is a rare jewel here," Heinitz said. "(The town of Saratoga) is hurting the fishing, they're hurting my business directly, they're hurting the overall economy of this community (by doing this work now)," Heinitz concluded. Patton agreed, saying "I get upset when they mess with the river – the only reason I live here is because I love that river."

Upon learning of questions residents were asking about the work, Winter described the project's impact as minimal saying the water was "no more churned up than what the natural is from run-off." Winter said the town was responding to USACE request for information and is awaiting word from the agency.

Patton flatly disagreed with Winter's depiction of the project. "That wasn't a little project – that wasn't moving a picnic table over (to Veterans Island)," she said.

"There's a cost to what they just did," Patton warned. If the USACE and DEQ investigation reveals noncompliant behavior, penalties could be levied against the town.

 

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