By Ry Rivard
Local governments across the Adirondack Park should require homeowners to inspect their backyard sewage systems for leaks, environmental activists are arguing.
In a new position paper, the Adirondack Council argues that leaking septic systems pose a growing threat to waterways around the park — not just in hot spots like Lake George, where septic pollution and regulation has long been studied and debated.
The paper seems focused on trying to change minds in town halls and among county officials, not just in Albany.
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“A comprehensive program will help ensure that septic systems are working properly and protecting Adirondack waters from harmful algal blooms, which are ravaging waters across the state, and other threats,” the head of the Council, William Janeway, said in a press release.
Local governments around Lake George, for instance, are now moving faster to require inspections of septic systems than the state, which has been trying to get its arms around the issue for well over 30 years. Part of the reason is that local governments are able to pass new mandates fairly quickly. State agencies, like the Lake George Park Commission, have to go back and forth to Albany before imposing major new regulations.
David Miller, the Adirondack Council’s point man on water quality issues, has been working with local governments to find money for clean water projects across the North Country. In the new report for the Council, Miller found that too little is known about septic pollution outside of Lake George and that problems are getting notice too late, after there are obvious signs of pollution, like harmful algal blooms.
The council is proposing a combination of education, regulation and subsidies for homeowners to learn about and repair failing septic systems.
“Once a HAB shows up, we’re in catch-up time,” Miller said, referring to the acronym for harmful algal blooms.
Septic systems are widespread in the rural areas of the country, including the Adirondacks. They are really just a way to carefully dump sewage into the ground. The goal is that wastewater leaves a septic tank slowly enough that the soil near the home will remove the bad stuff before anything dangerous ends up in the lake. A broken septic system will release too much raw sewage too fast, overwhelming the soil’s cleaning power.
Untreated sewage can carry with it waterborne pathogens that can sicken people. The bigger problem, though, tends to be the chemicals in wastewater that act as food for harmful algae that can shut down beaches, scare away tourists and endanger drinking water supplies.
A few local governments, like Queensbury, require homeowners to inspect their septic systems before they sell their property. Miller said that is a good first step for other local governments around the park to look to.
He also argues the state needs to step up with more money to help homeowners fix the problem. The state has been putting millions into grants to help people upgrade their septics, but it’s unclear how much will be needed and not all areas have been eligible for money.
Last summer, the Fund for Lake George and banks around Lake George came up with a plan to offer special loans to homeowners to upgrade their septic systems. So far, according to Miller’s report, “only a few homeowners” have taken advantage of the loans. That’s because of the need for grant money from the state.
The whole issue involves a series of tensions. Lakeside property owners can be quite wealthy, though others may be the owners of an inherited family property they couldn’t afford to buy today. New septic systems can cost $30,000. While few homeowners are liable to notice the leaking septic in the same way they’d notice a leaking roof, a leaking septic can cause more damage beyond the property line than a leaking roof ever could.
The politics around mandatory inspections can also be tense, yet those politics seem to be changing. Around Lake George, for instance, some local politicians and businesses are calling for septic regulations as necessary to protect the lake.