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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Spring fling

The King Phillips Spring before the pipe was removed. Photo by Phil Gallos.

The King Phillip’s Spring before the pipe was removed. Photo by Phil Gallos.

Phil Gallos has a thing for springs. He has visited more than sixty of them in the Adirondacks, often taking photographs and recording his observations. In ancient times, he says, springs were sacred places–they sustained life.

“There’s an aesthetic and spiritual quality to going to the spring to get your water,” he says. “It is a connection to the natural pattern of our species. It is what we have been doing for millennia.”

Gallos, who lives in Saranac Lake, was upset when the state Department of Environmental Conservation closed King Phillip’s Spring on Route 73, just off Northway Exit 30. King Phillip’s was one of the most visible and most popular springs in the Adirondacks. Driving past on a hot summer day, a motorist often could see people lined up to fill bottles from a pipe sticking out of a chain-link fence. The water seeps naturally to the surface in the woods, where it had been captured in a spring box and piped downhill to the fence.

DEC decided to remove the pipe in late April after detecting high levels of coliform bacteria in water samples taken over six months. Generally, coliform bacteria are not harmful in themselves, but they can indicate the presence of pathogens. People who drink contaminated water may experience diarrhea, cramps, nausea, jaundice, or fatigue.

Given the risk to public health, DEC felt it had no choice. The spring is on the Forest Preserve. In a news release, the agency said building a permanent structure to protect the spring and disinfect the water would violate Article 14, the clause in the state constitution that mandates that the Preserve shall remain forever wild.

Gallos contends the state overreacted, saying that people have been drinking water from King Phillip’s Spring for generations without any apparent ill effects. It’s possible that the bacteria were growing in the pipe or the spring box. If DEC replaced the pipe and disinfected the spring box, he says, the problem might have gone away.

DEC spokesman David Winchell counters that even if the state followed Gallos’s suggestion, the pipe and/or spring box could become contaminated again. In fact, he said DEC did disinfect the pipe and box on several occasions, but tests continued to show high levels of coliform.

Gallos also thinks DEC should have done more testing. Many forms of coliform bacteria occur naturally and do not indicate a threat. The general coliform test, unlike more specific tests, fails to determine whether the bacteria found indicate the presence of harmful pathogens. “If any of these bacteria are present, then they consider the water is not safe to drink, and to me that is a crude approach,” he said.

Winchell confirmed that DEC performed the general coliform test, but in doing so the agency was following the requirements of the state Department of Health.

The origin of the bacteria is uncertain. The fence was erected years ago to keep people from defecating near the spring, but Winchell said DEC continues to find evidence of human waste. “We closed the spring because we can not ensure the quality of the water and the safety of the public that drinks it,” he said.

Gallos sees the closure as part of a wider state campaign. The state also has closed roadside springs in the southern Adirondacks, he says, and posted warning signs at others, including Lumberjack Springs outside Tupper Lake and another along Route 3 near the hamlet of Gale. At the Gale spring, Gallos says, “I met a guy in his eighties who said he had been drinking this water all his life, and yet there’s a sign right there: ‘Unfit for human consumption.'”

Do you think the state was right to close King Phillip’s Spring? Before deciding, you might want to read the attached documents: DEC’s news release, a state leaflet on coliform bacteria, and Phil Gallos’s essay (it’s 8,000 words) on Adirondack springs.

DEC news release pdf

DOH leaflet PDF

Phil Gallos essay PDF

Phil Brown

Phil Brown has been editing the Adirondack Explorer since 1999. When he isn't at his desk, he's usually out hiking, paddling, skiing, or doing something else important. You can follow his adventures and his musings on the Adirondacks in the Explorer and on this blog.

6 Responses

  1. Lee Keet says:

    Phil, I believe better testing of all waters for discrete coliform counts and adoption of standards better than the current go/no-go levels would solve the problem.

    If we had such standards, and the spring failed the more granular coliform tests, then it should, of course, be closed. We apply very crude standards, for example, to beach closings, with a huge range of troublesome counts before the water is declared polluted. This is unfair to everyone, as there is a presumption of safety when the beaches (spring) are not closed, probably untrue in both cases.

    Whether more information and transparency would be enough is uncertain, and while I would make my own decisions if the data were available, many would not. Therefore I think the only solution is better standards and more granular testing.

  2. Ray Curran says:

    Phil:

    Very Unfortunate. This spring has provided me with many a refreshing drink on hot days in August with no ill effects. I also used it (as others have) as a source for home beer brewing water. I’ll see it tomorrow and Mourn the loss. I wonder if there are other ways to correct the situation e.g. by removing all surface water sources to the spring box. Time to think creatively.

  3. Pete Hickey says:

    It’s a lot safer for the bureaucracy to closer the spring than to run the risk (however small) of someone suing them because they got sick….

    Why run the risk of anything when there is no risk in closing it.

  4. […] my original post on this subject, I reported that the state Department of Environmental Conservation removed the pipe […]

  5. David says:

    Where does the fact that this is in a wilderness area and the structure is non-confomring under the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan fit into all this?

    • Phil says:

      David, that’s an excellent point. It appears from the Adirondack Park state-land map that King Phillip’s spring is in the Dix Mountain Wilderness. My guess is that the spring predated the Park’s land classifications, and nobody made a fuss about keeping it. Such anomalies are bound to crop up when Wilderness Areas abut public roads.

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