Section: SPORTS,  Page: C1

Date: Thursday, December 3, 1998

A single mayfly nymph has never looked so good nor loomed so large. Even if it is a baetis, which even when its adult wings are spread is scarcely visible. But it is unmistakably a mayfly, says biologist Bob Bode, head of the DEC's biomonitoring unit, and it most surely came out of Patroon Creek in the heart of Arbor Hill this summer.

Patroon Creek is a marvel, a paradox, a high hope and a frustration. For a short stream it's come a long way since 1993 when it was listed as among the state's 10 worst polluted streams. Six years ago nothing significant was found alive below its Rensselaer Lake source except tube worms that feast on the gook of dead rivers. Raw sewage flowed past the check station near Tivoli Street where this summer students from Albany High School, under the direction of Trout Unlimited's Ron Dorn and the DEC's Larry Abele, helped monitor the stream's health, and kept at least one brown trout alive for the duration. More would have survived if they hadn't overfed them.

Water quality has improved enormously. The students found water temperatures remained at a pretty constant 68 degrees through the summer. Oxygen was sufficient. If there simply wasn't a whole lot of mercury, cadmium and other heavy metals leaching through that DEC wildlife pathologist Ward Stone identified years ago, and probably aromatic hydrocarbons and PCBs and who knows what else from industry's 19th century chemistry set, we could stock the Patroon tomorrow. But the cruelist turn of all would be stocking it so that the fish would become contaminated and be eaten by herons. No, the natural order is clean it up first, then stock it.

The paradox to that is that this urban blighted stream has been dead longer than brown trout have been in America. They were brought here from Europe in the 1870s. When the day comes, what a kick it will be to create a brown trout stream that wasn't one, and in the middle of a city.

But that's only part of Aaron Mair's vision. The improvement of the environment represents for him a respect and quality of life issue for residents of the affected neighborhoods, as well as a reciprocal respect for the outdoors by those who live there. It's cross elevation.

Mair has proven he has a good sense of how to get from here to there, such as mobilizing those who can bring change to Patroon Creek. He was instrumental in getting Albany's ANSWERS incinerator plant shut down in the inner city, and now he's tackling the clean-up and creation of a Patroon Creek watershed. Right through the heart of Arbor Hill.

Why not make the once-foul Patroon Creek a national environmental model for restoring and resurrecting precious urban open space?

Mair wants his organization, the W. Haywood Burns Environmental Education Center, to be the steward, in partnership with the DEC and probably the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The federal agency last year did an inventory of the considerable wildlife around Tivoli and Mair says they've expressed an interest in promoting it as a clean-up and stewardship model, an idea that complements cleaning up the upper Patroon Creek, with local, state and federal help.

Patroon creek flows by the old West Albany rail yards and past a mercury refining business and others. There's still a lot of pollution assessments to be made, and then work to be done.

Today, Mair will guide a tour through impacted areas of the Patroon Creek watershed for members of Albany's city and county water and sewer departments, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the DEC, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, the Sierra Club, the U.S. Geological Survey (which has an ongoing monitoring interest in the Patroon), plus some environmental lawyers. Trust Aaron Mair to get his message across.

And maybe start to give a tiny, fragile mayfly a little muscle to flex. Fred LeBrun's outdoors column usually is published Tuesday and Thursday. To reach him, call 454-5453.