By Ry Rivard
Worried about the long-term health of Lake George and the economy it supports, two banks are offering special loans to upgrade septic systems that are leaking sewage into the lake.
The loan program shows that despite anchoring one of the country’s most desirable lakefront property markets, the lake’s famed water quality is in danger.
About 6,000 homes and businesses around the lake rely on septic systems. About 4,000 of those systems are at risk of contaminating the lake because they are old or neglected, according to research by the nonprofit Fund for Lake George, which helped create the loan program.
Sewage itself is gross, but it also feeds toxic bacteria. Across New York, blooms of these harmful bacteria — often mistaken for and called algae — are a major threat to lakeside tourism and drinking water supplies.
There has never been a toxic bloom confirmed at Lake George, but harmful blooms were reported last year in 180 other New York waterways from the tip of Long Island to the Canadian border.
Eric Siy, the Fund’s executive director, said a toxic bloom is nightmare for Lake George.
“Picture that, picture the headlines,” Siy said in a Zoom press conference announcing the loan program.
Bad headlines have already flashed the lake’s name. For several days in the past few years, officials shut down Million Dollar Beach, one of the lake’s most popular swim spots, because of high bacteria levels. The source was likely a sewage leak of some kind.
Property owners and lakeside public officials have tackled some of the larger problems. The aging wastewater treatment plant that serves the Village of Lake George is being replaced, for instance.
But septic tanks are another matter. They are largely unregulated and often out of sight and out of mind — until something goes terribly wrong. Then, they are also incredibly expensive. A new septic system can cost $30,000.
One rough estimate suggests over 200 million gallons of sewage are leaking out of septic systems near the lake each year. The lake holds 550 billion gallons of water, which people around the lake drink from.
The Fund’s two banking partners, Adirondack Trust Co. and Glens Falls National, decided to offer inexpensive loans to make it easier for homeowners and small businesses to afford upgrades. The group also launched a website, safesepticsystems.org, with a quiz and guide so people can figure out what to do.
Together, the banks have set aside at least $2.5 million for the septic loans. Some of the loans are no interest, others are low-interest.
“We all know Lake George is so vital to our regional economy,” said Matthew Harrison, an Adirondack Trust vice president.
He and an official from Glens Falls National, Marc Yrsha, both said water quality issues have yet to affect property values.
But the loan program is among several efforts by companies across the country to help customers deal with rising environmental challenges or shore up property values. Out West, Travelers insurance company is helping customers defend their property from wildfires. Companies, including in New York, are working on programs to help property owners finance clean energy projects, like solar rooftops. For years, utilities and governments have also helped customers upgrade power-hungry and water-thirsty appliances, including more efficient water heaters and low-flush toilets.
Daniel Davies, a real estate broker who sells property along Lake George and advises the Fund for Lake George, said property values around the lake “are inextricably linked to the quality of the water.”
Other towns are finding that out the hard way. In the northern Vermont town of Georgia, three dozen homes near a polluted bay repeatedly plagued by harmful algal blooms each lost $50,000 in value several years ago because of the pollution. Studies of other lakes show even small decreases in water quality — particularly anything that effects clarity — dramatically reduces property values and tourism.
“Clear, clean and algae-free water is what makes the great Lake George equation work,” said Jeff Killeen, chairman of the Fund’s board.