As new sewer plant nears completion, area seeks more answers about E. coli
By Kris Parker
Lake George has long been known for its pristine water and beautiful vistas — not its bacteria.
In recent years, though, a series of beach closures including one last month at Million Dollar Beach has sparked an intensive search for the origin of contamination. The exact source remains unclear.
“We’ve been looking everywhere for the source,” said Randy Rath, of the Lake George Association. “It could be overland flow, but we’re still looking for the smoking gun.”
High levels of E. coli closed Million Dollar Beach for the first time in the summer of 2016. Since then, there have been at least 17 days when the popular beach has been closed for the same reason.
The state, local governments and conservation groups all are working on the problem. A closure this season, on June 5, demonstrated the continued need.
Though the state Department of Environmental Conservation monitors for E. coli, it remains unclear if tests at Million Dollar Beach are conducted after every rainfall, when pollutants can wash into the lake. Some visitors favor a more visible approach.
“I guess if there has been a problem, I would definitely hope that they would maybe mark it or announce that it was tested today and that it was safe, whatever the levels might be,” said Alex Strauss, a doctor from Morristown, New Jersey. “That might make us feel more comfortable sending our children into the water.”
Strauss and his family were visiting Million Dollar Beach the day after a night of rainfall.
DEC says testing frequency at a specific location can depend on factors including rain, number of potential pollution sources, amount of beach use, and water circulation. Lake George beaches managed by the DEC are tested at least once a week during the summer.
E. coli, short for Escherichia coli, is a group of bacteria. Most strains are harmless to humans, while some are normally present in a healthy human intestinal tract. Virulent strains, however, can cause stomach pain, diarrhea and vomiting, and more severe infections can be life-threatening.
Contamination occurs through the ingestion of water or food that has come into contact with animal or human feces. Tests revealing more than 235 E. coli colonies per 100 milliliters result in beach closures.
The recurring presence of E. coli at one of the lake’s most popular destinations has led to a critical examination of the community’s sewer and stormwater systems. In April of 2017, DEC released a report that detailed its initial investigation into the high readings of the previous year. The report identified the East Brook outflow as consistently reporting high levels of E. coli, and recommended further investigating the sewer lines and stormwater basins in the area.
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East Brook enters Lake George on the east end of Million Dollar Beach. The report ruled out the likelihood of “nearshore sources of pollution” — algae, natural debris and animal feces — as major contributors. It found high bacteria levels during dry weather, and bacteria associated with humans at East Brook’s mouth. Those findings pointed researchers toward leaking sewer pipes as a possible source of contamination.
Camera inspections of the sewer and stormwater systems have been conducted — as well as dye and smoke tests at municipal and commercial facilities and private homes — to check for sewer connection failures. They turned up one break in the main sewer line, and multiple problems with the pipes, manholes and pump stations of the Caldwell Sewer District. The Town of Lake George, which manages that district, was awarded $220,000 in grants to help pay for the estimated $463,000 worth of repairs. In addition to inspecting the sewer infrastructure, the holding tanks and sewer pumping systems of tour boat operators were inspected and debris was cleaned out of all stormwater infrastructure.
The repairs narrowed the possible remaining sources of contamination, and cleanup efforts have become increasingly focused on stormwater entering the lake. Heavy rains can wash any pollutants from the road into lake tributaries.
“There could be a leak somewhere that we’re just not aware of yet, but it seems stormwater is a definite cause,” Rath said. “We had 1.6 inches of rain the night before the last closure.”
At one time the West Brook tributary was estimated to be responsible for half of all pollutants entering the lake’s southern basin. The West Brook Conservation Initiative has since successfully worked to restore wetlands in the area to help to naturally filter the brook’s water. Wetlands also exist along East Brook, but the outflow has been a consistent site of elevated levels of E. coli, particularly after a heavy rain. The correlation between heavy rain and high readings has increased the suspicion that stormwater is now the primary source of E. coli.
In an email, DEC officials said that while “elevated E. coli levels can be caused by a variety of circumstances,” they “can frequently be attributed to heavy rains the night before.” Tainted stormwater can dissipate in one day, and beaches are closed during that time or until resampling confirms they’re safe.
In addition to sewer repairs, in 2019 the Village of Lake George began receiving grant funds to build a modern wastewater treatment facility. The DEC had issued a consent order to the village instructing it to build the new plant. The old plant dates to the 1930s and has been responsible for releasing excessive nutrients, which can contribute to algal blooms. Last autumn saw the lake’s first ever harmful algal bloom.
The new plant will cost $24 million, and currently $17.2 million has been allocated through various grants. It’s scheduled for completion in August, though Mayor Robert Blais said material shortages could lead to a delay.
“It is more realistic for the plant to be online in the fall, but that’s not officially the case yet,” Blais said.
TOWNS STRUGGLE TO FUND SEWER PROJECTS: Read about how grant funds can only go so far for Adirondack communities looking to pay for expensive sewer upgrades.
The Town of Lake George has already completed slip-lining the Caldwell Sewer District, which significantly reduces the likelihood of the sewer being a current source of contamination and beach closures.
“We don’t know what else to do,” Lake George Town Supervisor Dennis Dickinson said. “We have cleaned up some things with stormwater systems, but the problem continues.”
Neighbors can help.
“The more individual homeowners can work to lessen storm runoff from their own properties, the better off we’ll be,” Rath said.
Protecting the lake is crucial, given its status as a tourist destination and drinking water provider.
“Water quality is essential to protecting the ecosystem as well as our tourism economy,” said Gina Mintzer, executive director of the Lake George Regional Chamber of Commerce.