Lake associations keep watch for aquatic invaders and water degradation
By SARA RUBERG
The Adirondacks are filled with people who work every day to protect the park’s thousands of lakes and ponds.
For some, it becomes a career. For others, like Neil Chippendale and Glen Repko, it’s an opportunity to volunteer time to benefit their community and lake.
For the past four or five years, the two have been taking water samples and performing other tasks on Schroon Lake. It can be tedious—often the sampler used to capture the water doesn’t close, or pieces of mud and sediment get stuck in the device. It can take up to 10 tries to get it right.
The samples and observations they take are sent to a lab where the health of the lake can be diagnosed through the Citizens Statewide Lake Assessment Program. It’s one of many tasks they do for the Schroon Lake Association as board members, a role they took on after retirement. The East Shore Schroon Lake Association also assists with the lake’s water testing.
“Schroon Lake is the backbone of our community,” said Repko, the Schoon Lake Association’s vice president. “It is one of the many reasons we live here and a driving force in our economy.”
Towns and neighborhoods built around lakes and waterways depend on good water quality to maintain their property values and community economies.
There are a slew of other organizations around the Adirondacks working to protect their waterways from degradation. Each has different resources, constraints and methods, though the missions are similar.
Issues surrounding lake conservation can be expensive and complicated. Water quality decline can happen for numerous reasons: storm-water runoff, faulty septic systems, aquatic invasive species and other problems.
The Lake George Association is one group trying to tackle all of these problems. What began as a group of fishermen looking to keep the waters clean grew into today’s association, a large organization protecting the health of the 32-mile-long lake on the park’s southeast flank.
The association is run by a staff of seven and funded by its 2,000 members along with grants from the state, the Lake Champlain Basin Program and private organizations. It has invested a lot of its time and funds into solving what studies show is a major threat to Lake George—untreated storm water. When storm water runs into lakes, it often brings along sediments and chemicals from roadways that pollute the lake and threaten the natural ecosystem. In partnership with homeowners, towns and other Lake George nonprofits, the group has undertaken storm-water remediation and treatment projects.
“We feel like that’s having the biggest impact on maintaining the water quality,” said Walt Lender, the association’s executive director.
Lake George is protected by its regulatory body, the Lake George Park Commission. It has partnered with the Lake George Association on various initiatives, including recreational-use studies and aquatic invasive species control and prevention. The two entities have worked on the boat stewardship program together, and eventually made inspections mandatory for boats entering Lake George.
They have also worked to manage Eurasian watermilfoil since 1986. Infestations are known to overgrow and push out native plants and wildlife. If milfoil goes untreated, it can grow so large and dense that fishing, swimming and other recreation can become almost impossible.
Crews remove milfoil in two ways. In some cases, divers pull the plant by hand and put it in a bag that allows the water to drain and the bag to float to the surface. The other method involves divers pulling the plant by hand and putting it in a suction tube. The plant travels through the tube to a table on a boat, where it is placed in buckets.
Last year, crews harvested more than 42 tons of milfoil on Lake George. Each year, these projects cost the association tens of thousands of dollars. This year $440,000 was spent on milfoil removal, according to David Wick, executive director of the Lake George Park Commission. That included $100,000 each from the LGPC and LGA, $60,000 from the Fund for Lake George and a $180,000 that came from a grant Warren County received from the state Department of Transportation.
“The goal is to eliminate all dense beds of the invasive plant in the next few years,” Wick said. “We think we have the resources to do so for the first time in 30 years. That’s fantastic.”
Milfoil removal is not easy in any lake, and for the Upper Saranac Foundation, it originally cost $1.5 million over three years starting in 2004 just to bring it down to manageable levels. Every year since, the foundation has paid for hand-harvesting the plants.
The investments have made significant improvements at Upper Saranac Lake. In 2004 the program removed 18 tons of milfoil. Last summer, the foundation discovered only about 300 pounds in the lake.
The Upper Saranac Foundation runs on charitable donations from shore owners and grants from the state, Lake Champlain Basin Program and the Cloudsplitter Foundation. The group hosts a number of science-based programs besides milfoil management, with the added responsibility of owning and operating the Bartlett Carry Dam, which maintains the lake’s water level.
Upper Saranac has the resources to address the lake’s invasive species problem. But for smaller organizations, like Osgood Pond Association, a watermilfoil infestation could be a catastrophe. Osgood Pond, a close neighbor to Upper Saranac Lake and others, has yet to be infested with aquatic invasive species, but the threat is imminent.
This year the Osgood Pond Association, with financial help from Paul Smith’s College and the Town of Brighton, hired a boat steward for inspections on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Bob Hall, the association’s president, fears the pond is vulnerable on other days. If milfoil were to ever root in Osgood, managing it would be nearly impossible because the organization runs on volunteers, optional dues from its 30 members and donations from other visitors. The dues alone produce about $1,500 a year, and milfoil removal often costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“It’s a long and … expensive process that would be entirely out of our scope to fund. It’s why we’re so concerned about having a state access point there but really no state assistance,” Hall said. “We feel sort of at the mercy of events.”
The state does not have funds to safeguard every public access, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation. Instead, it prioritizes projects and forms partnerships to manage invasive species, and awards grants based on criteria developed by biologists.
“Ideally, DEC would have the funds to manage every invasive species project and cover decontamination services at every public boat launch,” the department said in a written response to the Explorer’s questions about the program. But, “as that’s not the case, the grant process allows DEC to apply the available funds fairly to the projects that are most likely to be successful and that will have the greatest public benefit.”
Osgood Pond Association, like many others, also conducts an annual survey of water quality and aquatic plants. These reports reveal whether invasives have made their way into the pond, and evaluate other possible threats to its quality.
Schroon Lake Association is testing the waters with a new device that will help locate invasive plants. The Cloudsplitter Foundation granted $5,000 for a bottom-mapping system that measures depths. The depths change annually due to sediments coming into the lake from Schroon River.
The small black device is slowly driven around while suspending from the end of a boat. Afterwards, the device is connected to a computer and a screen on the device shows what the floor looks like.
Safeguarding Schroon Lake’s watershed costs the association about $42,000 a year, raised from fundraisers, 600 paying members and occasional grants. Like many other lake and river associations around the park, it runs on volunteer effort, with nine out of 17 board members still working full-time jobs.
“Everybody came here because they love the place,” said Mark Granger, the association’s president. “We do this because the watershed is our town and community.
“Without it, there would be no reason to live here.”