The surveyors who dropped nets (and beer) in 1,500 Adirondack lakes
By Zachary Matson
Field crews during a 1980s survey of 1,476 Adirondack lakes started work many Monday mornings at far-flung airstrips in Piseco Lake, Old Forge or Star Lake.
They loaded up a pontoon-equipped helicopter, crammed in with camping and chemistry gear and headed off, a heavy Grumman canoe poking out each open door. After landing on remote lakes, pilots waved goodbye to the teams of scientists, often with no plans for a return flight until Friday.
The field teams worked for the Adirondack Lakes Survey Corporation (ALSC), which after nearly 40 years of water science across the park is set to merge with the Ausable River Association next year.
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The surveyors dropped nets in the water to count fish, pulled water samples, noted the lake’s surrounding landscape, collected small insects to identify during the winter and mapped the lake’s bottom by canoeing vectors across the water while taking sound depths. They hiked to nearby lakes and repeated the procedures, spending the week in the backcountry checking off an itinerary of water bodies.
Sometimes, when the weather didn’t cooperate, the return flight was canceled, so the crews lugged their equipment out on foot.
“You’re tired, you’re wet, you’re filthy, you smell like old gill net, but you finally get out and have a shower and a cold beer and life is good again,” said Rick Costanza, a Vermont-based Nordic ski coach who worked as a field scientist on the 1980s survey.
In four field seasons, starting in spring 1984 and concluding in fall 1987, staffers for ALSC, a nonprofit formed by state officials in 1983 to carry out the survey, visited over 1,500 lakes and analyzed samples for more than 20 measures of water quality.
ALSC continued monthly monitoring on dozens of lakes across the Adirondack region’s five watersheds, studied high-elevation streams with the U.S. Geological Survey, tracked pollution in soil and clouds and consulted with state fish biologists on stocking decisions. Staffers for nearly four decades added to a now vast database of Adirondack water chemistry – and enjoyed/suffered hiking and paddling adventures along the way.
The data unlocked a deeper understanding of acid rain, spurring key amendments to the federal Clean Air Act in 1990, and documented the region’s gradual recovery. It may still hold answers to environmental questions of the future.
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The organization that chronicled the acidification of Adirondack lakes, though, was undone by its own success as interest among researchers and policymakers in acid rain problems waned. After years of diminished funding and reduced sampling, which nearly shuttered the organization in 2017, ALSC will be absorbed into the Ausable River Association in January, with each entity continuing its historic missions.
Advocates and researchers hope the story of acid rain – from scientific understanding to monitoring to policy and recovery – can serve as a model to tackling 21st century threats to Adirondack waters. Just as ALSC closes one chapter, a consortium of research universities and advocacy organizations is plotting a new survey of Adirondack lakes focused on climate change, the most ambitious since the 1980s. ALSC plans to play a role at its new home.
“It’s a good story,” said Phil Snyder, ALSC program manager and lone full-time employee. “The work we did over the years has led to a drastic reduction in emissions and improvement in acid rain. I’m not going to complain that acid rain is not the problem it used to be. In the course of one lifetime, there really aren’t that many environmental stories out there that have that good arc.”
Fish in Lake Colden
At over 2,760 feet in elevation, Lake Colden is the second highest of 52 lakes ALSC sampled every month from 1992 through 2017. The organization tracked a gradual increase in pH levels and acid-neutralizing capacity and a steady decline in sulfur oxide concentrations, all signals of recovery from decades of acid deposition.
The state stocked brook trout at the lake from 1941 to 1972 but ALSC surveyors caught no fish in October 1987 and September 2004. Colden, and around 40 lakes in the park, were declared fishless after the 1980s survey.
Snyder and Sue Capone, a longtime ALSC employee who has logged sampling trips to hundreds of Adirondack lakes since the first field season in 1984, return often. If they are lucky, they can hitch a ride on a state helicopter resupplying the Lake Colden outpost.
“It’s a three-hour walk or a seven-minute flight,” Capone said in September as she hiked up the “misery mile” stretch of the route from Adirondack Loj to Avalanche Lake, where Capone and Snyder use a cached DEC rowboat to bypass the scramble across Hitch-Up Matildas, a curious and envy-inducing sight for trailbound hikers.
They sample Avalanche Lake on the return trip from Colden. Snyder said snow has been so deep during recent winter sampling trips they had to dig six feet into drifts to collect water after skiing up from the trailhead.
The two lakes and nearly 50 others are now sampled every other month as part of the Adirondack Long Term Monitoring Program funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.
As the chemistry at Colden showed signs of recovery from acidification, Snyder started to suspect the lake could again sustain brook trout. Then, during a sampling trip in 2019, he looked off the bridge that crosses Cold Brook behind the caretaker’s cabin and noticed a small fingerling trout navigating the current.
“He’s standing there and all of a sudden I hear, ‘That’s a brook trout!’” Capone recalled.
An angler had also reached out to DEC about spotting trout at Lake Colden, and a DEC survey that fall found three age classes of trout widespread in the lake. Snyder said a convincing theory holds that some trout had survived up Cold Brook until Colden recovered, and they returned to repopulate the high-elevation impoundment. The brook’s water is clear enough to count the cobbles, and a small trout this September quivered as it faced upstream in the same spot as Snyder’s earlier find.
In the second half of the 20th century, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants, especially coal-fired plants in the Midwest, drifted into the Adirondack region and fell as precipitation, acidifying Adirondack lakes. Lakes on the western slope of the plateau endured the brunt of the impact.
DEC scientist Carl Schofield surveyed over 200 Adirondack lakes and found that over half above 2,000 feet were acidified and many fishless in 1976. By 1982, DEC scientists had documented over 250 fishless Adirondack lakes and another 250 on the verge of losing fish populations.
“Everyone was starting to panic and say the Adirondacks are going to be acidified and we will lose 2,000-plus lakes,” longtime DEC biologist Walt Kretser said in a recent interview.
Within a year of co-signing a 1982 letter calling out industry-funded reports “designed to confuse acid rain issues,” Kretser was working with utility companies to carry out a comprehensive scientific study of lake acidification and fish populations. The utility companies funded the largest share of the research. Kretser said the case was simple: “Don’t you want to really know what’s going on in the Adirondacks?”
If the utilities did make changes to limit harmful emissions, a survey would be important to document any improvements. “We had no baseline,” Kretser said.
Kretser, who had been studying Adirondack lakes, outlined an unprecedented plan to survey a huge share of the nearly 3,000 ponds and lakes in the region to understand regional differences and the extent of acidification.
In December 1983, the Empire State Electric Energy Research Corp., a nonprofit research coalition of the state’s power utilities, and DEC jointly formed the Adirondack Lakes Survey Corp. to carry out an “Adirondack Lakes Study.”
The plan called for major chemistry and fisheries sampling at 1,200 lakes and ponds in the Oswegatchie-Black, St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain watersheds. In 1987, it expanded to include Hudson River watersheds, including 250 lakes in the Catskills and other parts of the state. The work resulted in a 432-page report published in 1992 and cost over $5 million, about $12 million in current dollars.
The survey team of five three-member field crews, a half dozen lab chemists and several administrative staffers operated from a lab in a single-wide trailer behind the Adirondack Park Agency and DEC offices in Ray Brook. “You just wanted to get the crews out as quick as you could,” Kretser said.
Beer in the deep hole
The scientists in the field used their understanding of basic limnology to pick the optimal spot to store beer: below the thermocline, the point in the water column where water temperatures fall.
They placed a six pack in a mesh bag weighed down by rocks, paddled to a deep part of the lake and dropped the mesh bag with a long line topped with a float.
“At dinner everyone could have a cold beer,” Costanza said.
During spring and summer, the field teams focused on either fish surveys or chemistry sampling. When looking for fish, they dropped gill nets, returning to count specimens. On some lakes they pulled empty nets.
“From a work point of view, it saves us a lot of time, but from a personal point of view it was rather depressing to see these large water bodies completely fishless,” said Ed Snizek, who worked on the 1980s survey.
Snizek said his wife was lucky to have the support of other ALSC families while he spent weeks in the field.
“It was tough not having any contact,” Snizek said. “I remember my wife telling me at one point it’s time to get a real job.” He ended up working for the APA.
ALSC recruited a pair of llamas to help carry supplies in the backcountry. After mixed results, Kretser adopted the llamas, Poco and Ferris. Poco died after raiding a store of apples, Kretser said, while Ferris found another home as a sheep guard.
“They liked to spit when they got angry with you, and they would get lazy for a while,” said Chris Catricala, who started working on lake surveys for Kretser in 1982 and joined the ALSC crew when the broader survey started.
The job was more than just backwoods traipses. Staffers compiled histories for each lake with water quality data and stocking records. They arranged access with property owners, double-checked data and mapped plans for the next field season.
“It was a golden opportunity to go and live in the Adirondacks, it’s everyone’s dream if you are a biologist,” Costanza said.
In the clouds
Before acid rain is rain, it’s cloud vapor. In that form, the pollutants that cause acid rain can be measured in a concentrated form.
“We are taking multiple steps back from sampling lakes,” said Paul Casson, who after working for ALSC now manages the research station in the wood-shingled silo perched atop Whiteface Mountain. “[Cloud water] is several orders of magnitude more concentrated. It’s a step closer to the emissions sources.”
ALSC started monitoring cloud water in the early 1990s, maintaining the research station on the Whiteface summit for years. A NYSERDA-funded project analyzing cloud water at Whiteface that runs out of money next year has documented a gradual reduction in cloud acidity.
“In the 1990s, in routine sampling the pH would be less than four on average,” said Sara Lance, a University at Albany research scientist who leads the cloud collection project at Whiteface. “Now, it’s five or above, the average has even been above six. That’s 100 times different on average.”
Scientists are exploring how the mountaintop outpost can be used to study climate change—researchers at Whiteface often collect compounds that originated from Western wildfires or drying lake beds—as well as other emerging pollutants.
“Clouds are a big unknown in a lot of the climate models,” Casson said.
‘That database’ and climate change
Snyder joined the lake survey as a lab chemist in 1999. He rose to lab manager and now serves as program manager.
“That database is the legacy,” Snyder said. “It’s not just an acid rain database, it’s a chemistry database. A lot of different things can be mined from it and used.”
SUNY Plattsburgh research scientist Tim Mihuc, the ALSC board’s longest-serving member, said the data will apply to climate change, algal blooms and numerous other environmental challenges.
As funding interest shifted away from acid rain, ALSC struggled to sustain its work. In November 2017, all eight full-time employees were terminated in anticipation of ceased funding; NYSERDA ended up funding ongoing monitoring work at a reduced level, supporting Snyder’s position and part-time field help from Capone, Casson and others. That funding expires at the end of the year, and NYSERDA has solicited proposals to continue sampling for another five years.
The ALSC board in recent years sought partnerships with academic institutions and other organizations, reaching agreement with the Ausable River Association, where ALSC will become a new program led by Snyder.
Capone in 2018 explored if the 1980s survey could be replicated and concluded limits to helicopter use would make it unrealistic to return to as many lakes. “Now, it wouldn’t fly,” she said.
But the old study is informing the planning of a new one, which will rely on new technologies and methods, as well as improved understanding of Adirondack lakes. The state Legislature funded $500,000 to initiate planning, data analysis and pilot sampling, and advocates plan to press for more funding this budget season, eyeing $6 million overall.
Kelley Tucker, executive director of the river association and an ALSC board member, said ongoing monitoring conducted by experts is a critical foundation for conservation decisions.
“It’s a long and tedious process and guess where it starts, with nerdy, rigorous science,” Tucker said. “But people have to agree to do it and someone has to agree to fund it.”
Jed Dukett was hired by ALSC in 1993 with a chemistry degree from SUNY Plattsburgh and put to work in the ALSC lab. He went on to become lab manager and the program manager. Dukett warned in 2018 budget testimony that cuts to the organization’s funding threatened monitoring that “served as a watchdog over polluters.” He said the staff’s focus on science made the task possible.
“We made sure we held each other accountable,” Dukett said. “Our job was to monitor how [polluters] were doing, and that’s what we did. We worked ourselves out of a job.”
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