Officials fight for the future of Lake George
Decade of growth threatening ‘pristine’ water quality
LAKE GEORGE Lake George’s beautiful clear water has made it New York’s crown jewel, and people such as Robert Blais and Dennis Dickinson are doing all they can to keep it that way.
Blais, the mayor of the village of Lake George, and Dickinson, supervisor for the town of Lake George, are among the many residents and tourists concerned about the future of the lake, which in 1791 drew this praise from Thomas Jefferson: “Lake George is without comparison, the most beautiful water I ever saw.”
But in the past decade, overuse, development, storm-water runoff and invasive species have all combined to threaten Lake George’s pristine status. And while the science seems in place to help monitor the situation, how to put that science to good use and implement practical policy is a bit daunting.
“I don’t think there’s any lake in the country that has as many layers of watchdogs as Lake George,” said Blais, who is in his 45th year as mayor. “We have the state, the park agency, 11 towns, three counties, all the not-for-profits. It’s the most looked at and studied lake ever. It’s our economic engine and we have to keep it that way, but you can be darn sure there are going to have to be some sacrifices made.”
Some of the sacrifices Blais was referring to will have to be made by homeowners living along the 176 miles of the lake’s shoreline. In the village and town of Lake George and in the town of Queensbury, measures are under way to see that residents’ sewer systems are in good working order, and fixing them will likely be costly.
“You’re going to have folks that will get upset, but if they sit back and look at their lake; if we lose that lake what are their property values going to be?” said Blais. “Why did they choose to live on this lake in the first place? Because it’s beautiful, and we all want it to stay beautiful.”
While the village has a municipal sewer system, that’s not the case in the town of Lake George, where Dickinson is doing his best to remind homeowners that they should all be willing stewards of the lake’s future.
“We have started a sewer initiative in the town to get people to upgrade and update their own septic systems,” said Dickinson, who is beginning his second consecutive term as supervisor and also held the post for four years from 1979-1983. “We started taking inventory last year, targeting mostly the people along the shoreline, trying to find out what they have and if they even know what they have. We are now prioritizing and we’re starting with those systems that are horribly inadequate.”
Residents have been concerned about how much it will cost to upgrade or replace septic systems, and some estimates of as high as $40,000 have been heard around town. Dickinson says those estimates seem a little high, and the plan is to help homeowners handle the cost with a grant from the federal government. The town will not, he said, employ any strong-armed tactics to make homeowners pay.
“There may be some people who will just flatly say, ‘no,’ but we’re hoping that if they see all their neighbors do it then they’ll eventually come around,” he said. “We are getting a lot of people who are coming in voluntarily to see what they have to do and resolve some issues.”
Along with the federal grant money, the Fund for Lake George, a not-for-profit group, is also willing to offer financial assistance to homeowners who upgrade their systems.
“We’re going to hear about a matching grant in a couple of weeks, maybe days, because I know 15- and 20,000 dollars is a lot of money,” he said. “That would be tough for people, but the grant would pay half the cost. And, the Fund for Lake George has offered to pay for all or a portion of the cost if the landowner can show that they are financially burdened by this. If they’re a single, retired person on social security for example, we can pay for half with the grant and the Fund would pay the other half.”
“We had public hearings and town meetings about this, and early on I was talking to the board about how these meetings might get downright rowdy,” said Dickinson. “Well the meeting was very well attended, we filled up the library, and it wasn’t rowdy. Everyone seemed interested, concerned and supportive.”
In the towns of Lake George and Queensbury, officials have also increased fertilizer restrictions for homeowners to prevent runoff that can harm the lake. Other municipalities have not, however, and that concerns Kathy Bozony, a water consultant for the town of Lake George. Bozony has worked for both the Lake George Association and the Fund for Lake George doing research on the lake, and has worked with the Lake George Watershed Coalition, a group of local governments and agencies dedicated to protecting the lake. Bozony worries that if all the communities around the lake fail to act in concert there will be grave consequences.
“The [Department of Conservation] classified the lake as AA-Special around 40 years ago, and the issue right now is that in certain parts of the lake it no longer qualifies,” she said. “It’s supposed to be drinking water quality but a lot of people won’t drink it. You keep your boat in the water and two weeks later you have a filthy scum line. Ten years ago that wouldn’t have happened. You could keep your boat in the water all summer.”
Trained as a natural resource specialist at Paul Smith’s College, Bozony said of all the negative factors hurting the lake right now — including invasive species such as Eurasian watermilfoil, Asian clams and spiny water fleas — storm-water runoff is her biggest concern.
“Storm-water runoff carries all these excess nutrients to these invasive species, which feeds them and the algae,” she said. “It’s all related because it all affects water quality. I’m going under water between 10 and 15 feet and instead of seeing a nice sandy bottom I’m seeing a foot of algae blooms.”
Walter Lender of the Lake George Association concedes that getting everybody on the same page, while at the same time not inflicting to much pain on homeowners, can be difficult to do.
“There are many different moving parts and personalities involved in this, but I think most people are pulling in the same direction,” said Lender. “It’s encouraging to see some communities getting involved in protecting the lake, and some homeowners are taking it upon themselves to install rain gardens and vegetative buffers along the shoreline. We all understand how Lake George is a great resource for us; for some it’s their drinking water, and we want to do all we can to maintain the water quality. That’s the big driver for our local economy.”
While the Lake George Association is a membership organization that sponsors many educational programs around the lake, the Fund for Lake George, according to its mission statement, “applies science-guided approach to protection focused on Lake George water quality and the overall health of the Lake George watershed.” Eric Siy has been the director for two years.
“Our lake is at risk of being loved to death,” said Siy, who grew up in Delmar. “All the qualities of the lake that we’ve taken for granted for generations are, and this is revealed by the latest science, directly threatened as never before. But instead of just reacting to individual issues, we have to have a proactive commitment that looks ahead for the long-term protection of the lake.”
The Fund advocated for a mandatory boat inspection program put into place Jan. 28 of this year by the Lake George Park Commission, an arm of the state legislature. The Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Program is working well according to Blais.
“At first, especially with fisherman, we heard some terrible remarks about the boat inspection program,” said Blais. “But it’s free, and people now appreciate that it’s the right thing to do. Our stations are strategically located around the lake, and we have 7 or 8 patrol boats that get out on the lake. Lately people have been very cooperative and are thanking the inspectors.”
Collecting all the latest science on the lake is the mission of “The Jefferson Project at Lake George,” a collaboration between the Fund for Lake George, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and IBM. Scientists with the Fund and RPI have been working on the lake for more than three decades.
Sandra Nierzwicki-Bauer, a biology professor at RPI, is the executive director of the Jefferson Project.
“Our job is to provide the information that will help us hone in on what the most critical threats to the lake are, and what we have to do to answer the questions in terms of lake preservation,” said Nierzwicki-Bauer. “Our goal is to provide all the science, and then have all the groups connected to the lake benefit from that science and hopefully use it for science-based policy.”
“There is potential for a lasting decline of lake health,” said Siy. “We want to stop that present decline, and if we’re to realize the sustained protection of Lake George for future generations, we have to act quickly.”