JAY — The long look toward managing a river's course comes with as many twists and turns as the Ausable River itself.
After Tropical Storm Irene hit in late August, communities are looking hard at what steps to take in understanding where and how close they stand to the river's edge.
Or where that edge should be.
Though nascent in form, a collective cry for answers is looking for both short-term and long-term "management plans," a to-do list that planners admit means different things to different living things on and in the river.
Corrie Miller is newly appointed executive director of the Ausable River Association, which just published an Ausable River Watershed Management Plan based on four years worth of research.
Miller said they are working to finalize the report this winter.
Funded by the Department of State, the study may show options that — if triaged according to community priorities — could form the basis for longer-term solutions.
"Within the Management Plan are summaries of characteristics and scientific studies done to date, including a matrix of recommended projects," Miller said.
Research suggests 13.6 miles of the Ausable River have high banks, where "the river is actively eroding downward, which is a major concern for the stability of the river banks as well as water quality downstream."
The association found regions of highest erosion below the Town of Jay and upstream from the Stickney Bridge.
Other "problem areas" — as the report calls them — are at St. Huberts, near Rivermede Farm, along Hulls Falls Road in Keene and between Lacy Bridge and Upper Jay.
High riverbank erosion exists along the river from the ski jumps in Lake Placid to High Falls Gorge and at the footbridge in Keeseville.
The report also documents repeated flooding "during all seasons of the year" and lists deluge events dating back to 1924.
One priority named is to catalog and analyze flood-prone areas.
Scientists with the River Association also surveyed people who live along branches of the Ausable.
The top three concerns — up and down the river — were flooding from ice jams, stream bank erosion/sediment deposits and water quality.
The report cites numerous areas where, historically, homes and property have already been moved back from the river, naming the Land of Make Believe as a casualty of repeated flooding.
Finding answers to potential flood threats next spring is part of the ongoing discussion, Miller said.
But engineering or remediation solutions take both time and money.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has responded to Ausable River flooding several times in the past three decades.
Roman Rakoczy is a senior planner with the Army Corps out of the Troy, New York District.
"The real issue, and there are a couple, is in storm-related damage," he said.
"Irene was one thing. A lot people think you could stop the impact of flooding in a significant event like we had. But that's not true.
"Based on our best information, this was something between a 200- to 500-year event, the most significant event this area has seen since records have been kept."
Even to protect some areas from 100-year flooding would involve extensive man-made structures — floodwalls, flumes, rip-rap and excavation in channels.
"But that's just not going to happen," the engineer said.
With Scenic River designation and special fish habitat that flows mostly through wilderness, the Ausable River is a protected and pristine resource on both a state and federal level.
Even so, Army Corps engineering could only begin with a request for a mission from local and state government leaders.
And it has to clear three critical hurdles.
"Any project that is conceived of must be engineeringly sound and economically sound, and all environmental regulations — state and federal — have to be met," Rakoczy said.
"In the end, they're going to look at economic threshold requirements. And because of formulas we're handcuffed with, you cannot justify a project without economic benefits."
Basically, he added, the money's not there.
"Our study on the Mohawk River is at $1.6 million, of which the local government and the County Soil Conservation District are paying half, largely with in-kind services."
Rakoczy estimated it would cost around $2 million for an engineering study done on the Ausable River.
"They do have to start addressing this from the watershed basis — to include all the tributaries that contribute sediment."
The River Association is looking to finalize the scientific report this winter, and, by next spring, to reinvigorate an advisory committee of stakeholders.
"We would look to what community concerns are, what their priorities are," Miller said, "what they value and what they want to protect — all of the values will be represented in that plan."
Dan Plumley, a partner with the environmental group Adirondack Wild, said a recent gathering of interest groups found common ground but lacked state-driven leadership support.
"It's just totally inappropriate to not answer our primary question: Will the governor call upon the Adirondack Park Agency, the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Transportation to deal with the infrastructure questions? Will these agencies lead to the comprehensive solution that needs to be found? It can no longer be done on the backs of town supervisors and volunteers."
Answers will likely navigate every river's bend.
"It's all dependent on who and where you are," Miller said.
"The real value of this type of management plan — a phrase with many meanings — is that it will have recommended actions done in cooperation with scientists."
Email Kim Smith Dedam at: firstname.lastname@example.org