Critics say a state panel has done little over the past 25 years to protect an Adirondack jewel once renowned for its clean, clear waters.
By George Earl
Lake George has long been renowned for the clarity and purity of its water. The thirty-two-mile-long lake supports a productive lake-trout fishery, serves as a direct source of drinking water for many homes, and looms large in the history and natural appeal of the region.
The exceptional water quality is due in part to the topography: Lake George is ensconced amid mountains, creating a compact drainage basin. Since most pollutants enter a lake through its watershed, a small drainage area is an advantage.
But Lake George is not invulnerable. In recent decades, the amount of pollution has been rising, so much so that the lake’s AA-Special rating—the state’s highest for water quality—is in jeopardy. Despite the AA rating, the state classifies Lake George and many of its 144 tributaries as “impaired.”
Scientists warn that unless better land-use practices are adopted in the watershed, the water quality of the lake will continue to decline. Yet many observers complain that the Lake George Park Commission is not doing enough to protect the lake.
Much of the problem is attributed to the clearing of land for roads and residential and commercial development. When trees are cut and natural surfaces paved over or built on, more storm-water runoff laden with pollutants, harmful nutrients, and sediment enters the lake and its tributary streams. As a result, Lake George has seen large deltas and algal blooms form near inlets, altering habitat, hindering navigation, and encouraging the establishment of exotic species such as Eurasian watermilfoil and zebra mussels. In addition, scientists have observed seasonal formations of “dead zones”—portions of the lake that become depleted of oxygen and fish. Another alarming trend is that salt levels have nearly tripled in the last thirty years.
One of the pollutants is phosphorus, a plant nutrient found in lawn fertilizers and pesticides (it also occurs naturally in rainwater). It has been on the rise in Lake George. Scientists estimate that surface runoff contributes 83 percent of the phosphorus washing into the lake. And though only 5 percent of the watershed is developed, these areas account for more than 40 percent of the phosphorus.
Twenty-five years ago, the state legislature gave the Lake George Park Commission powers to safeguard the lake and its watershed. Critics, including environmentalists and some shore owners, contend that the panel has done little while water quality deteriorated.
“I’m very frustrated that more hasn’t gotten done, because I see those charts for thirty years documenting those parameters—the phosphorous, the sodium, the water clarity. All the trends are going the wrong way, and all we’ve done is document them,” said Rosemary Pusateri, who owns a home in Cleverdale, a hamlet on the south end of the lake.
Pusateri used to draw her drinking water directly from the lake, without treating or filtering it. But after tests by the Darrin Freshwater Institute, which has been studying the lake since the 1920s, found high levels of bacteria in the water, she felt she had to start treating it with ultraviolet light. “That broke my heart, and I’m still angry about it,” she said.
Peter Bauer, executive director of the Fund for Lake George, accuses the park commission of pursuing a “minimalist agenda” to avoid imposing on landowners and developers. “Even though the water quality has been slowly deteriorating over the last thirty years, the park commission has not acted to slow its decline,” Bauer said. “Clearly, the sympathies of the majority of commissioners are to preserve the status quo—that is, development at all costs rather than adopt rules to protect the lake.”
Commission Chairman Bruce Young, a retired pilot who has served on the board for sixteen years, counters that the water quality is still high. “I’d like to think the [water quality] is great because it’s a measure that we are doing something,” he said.
Threats to Lake George intensified after completion of the nearby section of the Northway in 1968. The highway made the lake easier to get to from points south, including the Capital Region and New York City, and helped transform it into a vacation-home hotspot. Large houses, subdivisions, and condominiums cropped up along the lake and, more recently, its hillsides.
In the early 1980s, the Darrin Freshwater Institute in Bolton Landing began detecting elevated levels of road salt, sediments, and nutrients (mainly phosphorous and nitrates). Larry Eichler, a scientist at the institute, said the amount of contaminants entering the lake today is even greater.
Eichler said pollution and siltation are slowly reducing the lake’s clarity while fueling the growth of unwanted weeds and invasive species, a problem that’s compounded as development spreads higher up the watershed slopes. “This is of course a major concern,” he said. “People want to be here because the area is beautiful. We just have to be aware that planning and zoning that might have worked for a small population along the lakeshore may not be sufficient to address a lot of these upper-watershed issues, including steeper lands and shallower soils. So our density of population may have to be quite a bit lighter in those fragile areas.”
Eichler said protecting stream corridors and shorelines, capturing storm-water runoff, and limiting tree cutting are the primary methods of addressing the lake’s problems.
The Lake George Park Commission’s framers saw the need for such measures when they created the panel back in 1987. The state legislature gave the commission broad regulatory power over the lake and its entire 152,000-acre watershed, which encompasses seven municipalities and parts of three counties. Its mandate directs the commission to “further promulgate rules relative to stream corridor management, tree cutting and wastewater control.”
Yet such rules were never implemented, and after a quarter-century of inaction and worsening water quality, some critics have come to see the commission as purposely thwarting a regulatory solution. “It’s impossible to end up with incomplete rules after twenty-five years without deliberately avoiding them,” Bauer said. “They try very hard to do very little.”
Politics have a lot to do with it, according to Bauer. “Commissioners have been approved more for their political pedigree than their desire to protect the lake,” he said.
Commissioners are appointed by the governor to nine-year terms, with input from local politicians. Some of the commissioners have close connections to politicians. Commissioner Jim Kneeshaw is the significant other of state Senator Betty Little, a Republican from Queensbury who is wary of land-use regulations. Another commissioner, John McDonald, is the brother of one of her political aides. Bauer asserts that many of the other commissioners share a similar political bent that makes them reluctant to impose more rules on private landowners.
“They are not going to implement an agenda of change,” he said. “The majority of commissioners today do not support an expanded role of the park commission in the Lake George watershed.” (He added that some recent appointees—John Pettica, Joe Stanek, and Dean Cook—are more green-minded.)
Young acknowledges that under his leadership, the commission has taken a different tack from that advocated by environmentalists—one that he said recognizes the concerns of people as well as the environment.
“Because it comes down to balancing the needs of people who live here versus turning it back to the sixteenth century,” he said.
Yet Young said the commission deserves credit for drafting and implementing rules that require developers to contain a substantial amount of runoff on building sites. He said the rules took more than ten years to complete and were recognized nationally for their excellence. (Bauer says the regulations are full of loopholes.)
Young also said the panel drew up draft rules almost two years ago that would restrict development and tree cutting in stream corridors. Although the proposed rules were released in January 2009, he added, the governor has yet to approve them. “Until we hear back from Albany, there’s not really much else we can do,” he said.
As for regulating tree cutting outside the stream corridors, Young maintains such measures fall under the purview of the state Department of Environmental Conservation. He also questions whether deforestation is even a problem: “I look at pictures of Lake George that were taken a hundred years ago and quite frankly where I live [in Huletts Landing] the whole mountain for a mile above me was clear. It was farmed,” he said.
Others contend that the park commission has the authority to enact regulations on its own.
“It’s pretty clear in the law that they have the authority to implement these programs,” said Tom West, an attorney who helped write the statute creating the commission. “All you have to do is read the statute. The intention was that they deal with these issues. They were given a lot of revenue to handle them. Their failure to do it is a shortcoming of the park commission.”
Likewise, DEC counsel Kenneth Hamm said the commission does not need the department’s approval to write tree-cutting regulations. State environmental conservation law gives the commission “the power to adopt, amend and repeal … rules and regulations relating to tree-cutting.”
Even the commission’s own counsel, Eileen M. Haynes, says the panel has the authority to promulgate its own regulations without the governor’s approval.
One way or another, many landowners and concerned citizens want to see stricter watershed regulations, according to Walt Lender, executive director of the Lake George Association.
“There’s certainly a need to protect the streams, because if you’re not protecting the streams you’re not protecting the lake,” said Lender, whose organization has about two thousand members.
Lender also sees broad support for stricter rules on tree cutting throughout the watershed. “The Adirondack Park Agency has rules about tree cutting, especially near shorelines, but even those rules are not clear or overly restrictive at this point. They could be improved,” he said.
Fishermen also tend to support measures to improve water quality. Walt Kendall, president of the Lake George Fishing Alliance, complains that deltas at the mouths of streams inhibit the spawning of rainbow smelt—the main food of lake trout. “Deltas block the streams so salmon and smelt can’t go up,” he said.
Yet many politicians and residents have lobbied fiercely against stricter watershed regulations. During public hearings in 2009 on the stream-corridor rules, a number of business owners and property-rights advocates vehemently opposed the proposals. A member of the Lake George Property Owners’ Association referred to them as “an environmental extremist’s dream and a local resident’s nightmare.”
As first proposed, the rules called for a fifty-foot-wide “riparian zone” where tree cutting would be prohibited and a hundred-foot-wide stream corridor where major development would be restricted. The regulations would have applied to both perennial and intermittent streams (those that run at least three months of the year, as opposed to ephemeral streams that run only during floods). The opponents contended that the rules amounted to a taking of private property.
Others contended that the rules were long overdue. “To me, hearing this fall that the entire near-shore area of the southern basin of the lake was blanketed in algae and that the algae is prevalent all over the lake, even in the northern basin, was quite a shock,” Melissa Vito, a local resident, said during the hearing. “The news was a clear wake-up call to local citizens and local governments that it’s time to change our ways.”
Nevertheless, the Warren County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution against the stream-corridor rules. “It’s far too aggressive,” said Dan Stec, supervisor of Queensbury and chairman of the county board. “I mean, you’re talking about people that are potentially located a mile off of the lakeshore, but because they’re on an intermittent stream their ability to use their property is overly impacted.”
Stec said some landowners fear that unmapped temporary streams could be regulated at the whim of the commission. In addition, he said, many of his constituents have a general antipathy toward government regulation they see as burdensome.
“There’s a lot of negative experience with state regulations in the Adirondack Park in general,” he said. “There’s just not a level of trust there.”
In response to the criticism, the commission relaxed its draft rules to allow construction on pre-existing building lots as close as thirty-five feet to a stream. The fifty-foot-wide zone protecting trees would be left intact for other lands.
Despite the weakening, Bauer and other environmentalists still want the regulations adopted. Local government, however, still opposes them. Stec said local residents want to stick with the status quo—that is, no stream rules at all.
Stec contends that the state could help Lake George more by changing its own behavior rather than by cracking down on private landowners. “The state ought to change its highway practices,” he said. “The biggest source of pollution in Lake George is state Route 9 and the interstate, not Joe Smith’s driveway or his roof square-footage that’s impermeable. It’s the sand and the salt that the state is putting down. That’s where these deltas are coming from.”
Lake George village and the other large towns around the lake—Bolton and Queensbury—have adopted land-use plans approved by the state Adirondack Park Agency and taken steps to reduce pollution. Nevertheless, their efforts won’t reverse the decline of Lake George, according to Dave Wick, who served for many years as director of the Warren County Soil and Water Conservation District.
“What most people don’t realize is that we’re not reversing the problem, we’re slowing its growth,” Wick said. “The projects we’re doing are great stuff, but until we start to look at our individual properties, it’s going to be hard to turn around the problem entirely.”
In the absence of tougher regulations, the Lake George Association and the Fund for Lake George are trying to persuade landowners and ordinary citizens to safeguard the lake. “Education,” Lender said, “is exactly what’s needed to get the public to buy in to better regulations protecting the lake.” Last year more than two thousand people went aboard the LGA’s Floating Classroom, a retrofitted pontoon boat, to learn about lake protection and ecology. Passengers learned how to measure important indicators of water quality including dissolved oxygen, clarity, and pH.
Bauer fears landowners won’t change their ways until it’s too late. “The tragedy is that oftentimes people do not react to environmental issues until a large part of the resource has been lost,” he said. “At that time the cost of remediation is either incredibly expensive or impossible.”
Bauer says regulations could fix the problem. “Nothing here is a mystery,” he said. “We know how to manage shoreline buffers. We know how to manage rain gardens [which collect runoff]. We’re aware of alternatives to fertilizers and pesticides. These are all things that are widely known and widely practiced across the country. It’s really developing the political and regulatory will to change land use practices so the water quality comes first.”
He may get his wish. As this story was being researched, Governor Andrew Cuomo selected Dave Wick to serve as the park commission’s executive director. He replaces Michael White, who resigned last summer after holding the post for about twenty-four years. Wick has pledged to mend fences and revive the stream-corridor regulations.
“The protection of Lake George requires both scientific and political acumen,” Wick said in an e-mail to the Explorer. “The issues must be presented to local stakeholders in a way that they understand and appreciate before regulatory action can be successful. Common ground can be found, as everyone wants what is best for Lake George in the long run. By listening to the thoughts, ideas, and concerns of all involved, we can chart a path forward ensuring the long-term viability of Lake George and its surrounding communities.” ■