THIS STORY HAS BEEN UPDATED FROM THE ORIGINAL VERSION
By Ry Rivard
As climate change and pollution threaten Lake George’s famed clarity, the lake’s two largest watchdogs are merging to better fight for its future.
The Lake George Association and the Fund for Lake George announced Thursday they are becoming one group, ending years when one of the nation’s most visited lakes was spoken for by groups with similar goals but sometimes conflicting messages.
The lake faces old threats from lakeside development and runoff that are now compounded and complicated by climate change, which is warming the lake and making the pollution already in it more dangerous. There are also now invasive pests in the water and in the trees around the lake.
Both groups are similar in many ways, with a handful of staff and revenue each year of around $1.5 million. But their mere existence and sometimes differing views have created confusion among people around the lake, and with donors.
Now, all of that will be under one roof. The new group will keep the Lake George Association name.
“We are able to do more now, and the lake requires we do more,” said Pete Menzies, the Association’s current president.
Jeff Killeen, who chairs the Fund’s board, will lead the board at the new organization. He said the lake is now facing existential threats that demand a unified group, not two groups that are “unscaled and unintentionally inefficient.”
Merger talks started many months ago, but the deal was cemented by a crisis.
On an unusually warm Saturday in November, Menzies was at Killeen’s home on Diamond Point, on the western side of the lake, talking about a merger. Across the lake, unbeknownst to either of them, the first documented algal bloom was happening on the lake.
It was exactly what people around the lake had feared. Blooms not only mar lakes by discoloring them, but can turn toxic. A combination of undrinkable water, worried tourists and lower property values is a nightmare for lakeside communities.
“We were on the goal line but that pushed us over the goal line, if we needed a push,” Killeen said.
While they generally have the same goals, the groups sometimes differ in how to keep the lake clean. To make matters more confusing, the Fund also sponsors another program called the Lake George Waterkeeper. The Fund-backed Waterkeeper argued recent anti-pollution rules created by the state’s Lake George Park Commission were too loose; the Association generally supported the rules.
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The groups were cordial but competitive. For instance, a reporter who mentioned one group in a story might hear from the other with a question about why it wasn’t mentioned, too.
But because of the blooms, they began working together more noticeably, pairing up and leaning into each other’s strengths without squabbling over credit. A staffer at the Association was the first person to identify the bloom, but the Fund, which partners with IBM and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to do sophisticated measurements of the lake, seemed better prepared to do detailed follow-up research.
The Association, founded in 1885, is perhaps the oldest organization of its kind in the country.
The Fund was part of the Association until it became its own group in 1980.
“Now we’re reuniting the two organizations into one again, as it should be, for the better of the lake,” said Walt Lender, the Association’s executive director.
Both groups’ boards approved the merger at a special meeting this week, but the members of the Association also have voting power and will need to approve the merger, too. That vote is expected to happen in early April, which means paperwork to combine the two groups could be finished by May.
Eric Siy, the executive director of the Fund, will be the top staffer for the new group, taking on the title of president. Lender will be vice president. Chris Navitsky will remain head of the Waterkeeper program.
“This is an all-in, all-out moment for Lake George,” Siy said.
The make-or-break moment may be closely watched around the country, much as efforts to keep Lake Tahoe blue or to save the Great Lakes have become part of America’s mixed environmental legacy.
The merger might also provide a lesson for other Adirondack groups. The Adirondacks, among the country’s first wilderness areas, in general have a sometimes confusing proliferation of groups — everything from the recreation-focused Adirondack Mountain Club to the activist groups like Protect the Adirondacks to groups like the Adirondack Council, which tries to speak for everyone, as much as that’s possible.
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Lake George has already long been a crossroads of war, wealth and recreation.
Before the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans hunted and fished around the lake. Thomas Jefferson praised the lake’s beauty. Major battles happened around the lake, and James Fenimore Cooper’s writing about those battles further planted the lake in the popular imagination. It became a popular haven for New Yorkers to escape cities in the summer, especially after the construction of a road system that made drives up from Manhattan much faster.
The Lake George Park was created in the 1960s, with some land acquired decades earlier for the state by some combination of forces, including pioneering conservationist John Apperson and infamous technocrat Robert Moses.
All along, the lake has been at the cutting edge of environmental conservation, making it one of the most protected in the world, in part because its shores are dotted with property owned by some of the nations’ wealthiest families, and in part because an entire economy depends on that water remaining swimmable each summer for tourists.
Yet the protections and attention were not enough to stave off the algal blooms, which are likely caused by a combination of pollution running into the lake and warmer water.
That’s caused some new groups to emerge. After the algal blooms, a group of Assembly Point residents, led by one of the founders of the Fund, wrote a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo arguing that he wasn’t living up to a goal the state set to clean up leaking septic systems around the lake.
And it has made clear that other politics on the lake are changing. In the 1980s, state lawmakers told the Lake George Park Commission to keep wastewater from running into the lake. Decades later, the commission doesn’t have any wastewater regulations in place or a single staffer who handles wastewater issues. But local governments around the lake — once considered the obstacle to new regulations — are taking matters into their own hands and passing rules to make the owners of lakeside septic systems clean up their act, thanks to evidence that some of the lake’s problems come from that sewage.