By Tim Rowland
Lake George is separated from Lake Champlain by just over two miles of waterfalls on the La Chute River, which tumbles through the one-time mill town of Ticonderoga, a word loosely translated to mean “where the waters meet.”
As Town of Hague Deputy Supervisor Steve Ramant notes, you can pull your boat from the waters of Lake Champlain and be ready to launch it into Lake George in the space of about 10 minutes.
Despite their proximity, these two bodies of water could not be more different in terms of invasive species. Lake George is a highly decorated model for fending off nonnative aquatic life that puddle-jumps from lake to lake, taking over and altering ecosystems as they go.
But the international Lake Champlain, connected to a ship route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes, hosts a virtual field guide of nonnative species that have hitchhiked on the hulls of unrestricted boats. One fish, the alewife, has altered the lake’s fisheries. The most recent invader—the fishhook waterflea—consumes zooplankton and threatens to upend the food web.
Some of Lake George’s top defenders worry that two boat launches on northern Lake George could become portals to invasives that they have so diligently tried to keep out.
Both launches—Mossy Point on the lake’s east side and Rogers Rock on the west—are short hops to the boat launches on Lake Champlain. And while teams are present during the day to inspect and, if need be, scrub incoming boats of invasives at both, there are no locking gates such as exist at other parts of the lake to prevent boats from entering the water after hours.
“It’s a stone’s throw from Lake Champlain to Mossy Point,” said Eric Siy, executive director of the Fund for Lake George, a not-for-profit, privately funded organization dedicated to the lake’s protection. “A boat from Lake Champlain carrying invasives to Lake George is our worst nightmare. These are loopholes that have to be closed.”
But the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, which would be the entity responsible for providing after-hours gates, remains unconvinced. “The state has regulations in place to protect water quality and stop the spread of invasive species entering waterbodies,” said Erica Ringewald, DEC’s deputy commissioner public affairs, in a written response. “In addition, in Lake George, trailered boats must be inspected before launching. Having a gate in place does not alter this regulation, and only inhibits the legitimate and lawful use of the boat launch.”
She added that “anglers in particular would be unfairly impacted as they oftentimes access the lake during off hours to avoid other recreational users and find some of the best fishing early a.m. and late p.m. In addition, a gate could have safety implications, preventing timely exit or emergency response.”
Hague’s Ramant, who is a fisherman himself, doesn’t buy it. “I fish that lake all the time in the summer, and no one’s on it at 5:30 in the morning,” he said. Because “all it takes is one” boat to spread an invasive, Ramant said the convenience of a stray angler here and there is not worth the risk.
Other launches, both public and private, are locked down at night and in the shoulder season, he said, leaving just the two weak links in the north. Ramant said it’s mystifying why so much care would be taken to lock up everything else on the lake, while the two northern launches would remain open. “It’s just those two,” he said. “We’re going to lose this battle unless everything can be controlled.”
In terms of aquatic invasives and nonnative species, Lake Champlain outnumbers Lake George 51 to six.
This ratio can be a little deceiving in that not all nonnative species are considered to be invasive. According to Meg Modley, Lake Champlain Basin Program aquatic invasive species management coordinator, an aquatic invasive species must be both nonnative and documented as causing economic, ecological, or human health harm. Of the 51 known nonnative species in Lake Champlain, Modley said, 11 are considered to be invasive.
Four invasives in particular—variable-leafed milfoil, water chestnut, alewife and fishhook waterflea—are found in Lake Champlain but not Lake George. (Lake George, but not Lake Champlain, has a documented population of Asian clams.) But that could change if other nonnative species are, in the future, reclassified. “We may have some species that are nonnative that sometime soon experts may say have become invasive because they are now able to document harm,” Modley said.
Even if a contaminated boat entered the water, transporting an invasive species from one lake to another is not exactly analogous to dropping a match in a dry forest. “The biology of invasions is that most invasions do fail,” Modley wrote. “That said, it is possible that a viable strand of Eurasian watermilfoil or variable leaved milfoil could take off if the conditions were right.”
According to Dave Wick, executive director of the Lake George Park Commission, the risk presented by the Mossy Point and Rogers Rock boat launches exists, but is small. The Mossy Point boat-wash hours are 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., and are somewhat shorter at Rogers Rock. He said “exceedingly few” boats are launched after hours, and that those that are, seem to be complying with the rules that require them to document their travels and maintain clean boats. And while fishermen might occasionally launch in the dark, it is unlikely they would, say, put in at 4 a.m. and take out prior to 6 a.m.—meaning that if inspectors didn’t see them going out, they would see them coming back in later in the morning. It would be possible for someone to beat the system, but “they would almost have to be trying,” Wick said.
He noted that the arguments can become circular, because both sides point to the same evidence, that being the scant number of boats on the water in the wee small hours—which can be interpreted to mean that either gates aren’t needed because of the lack of traffic, or that so few would be affected that what’s the harm in putting up gates?
What is not arguable is the effectiveness of the lake’s guardians. The data indicate that the Lake George invasives program has been highly successful. According to its website, the Park Commission instituted a mandatory trailered boat inspection program in 2014, and since that time no new aquatic invasives have gotten into the lake. Under the program, all trailered boats launched into Lake George must be inspected for invasive species at one of seven regional boat inspection stations. The inspections, and washing if necessary, are free. The inspection takes about five minutes, and if the boat does not arrive clean, drained and dry, a wash may take between five and 10 minutes.
Trained inspectors have spotted 639 boats with invasives since the program’s inception, and decontaminated 8,000 boats that did not meet the cleaned, drained and dry standard.
Those who favor restrictions say that it is the meticulous attention to detail—and going the extra mile—that has worked so well in limiting the external threats to the lake. And taking the broader view, environmental groups say the principles that have worked at Lake George should be aggressively applied statewide.
New York “needs to take the success of Lake George and replicate it statewide,” said Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks. Lake George, he said, proves the program can work, even on larger lakes served by multiple jurisdictions. But a unified effort is lacking.
Green groups such as Protect and the Adirondack Council have noted that there is no mandatory exit-washing on Lake Champlain, and the Crown Point boat launch, to take one example, is a half hour north of Lake George, but has no boat-wash facilities at all.
Siy said it is in everyone’s best interests to protect all Adirondack lakes, which are central not just to the North Country environment, but to the North Country economy. The lack of a state-mandatory program can expose weak links in the chain, including Mossy Point and Rogers Rock, gate advocates believe, and that’s a risk that isn’t worth taking.
“You don’t win a war by just playing defense,” Siy said. “Bottom line is we need a mandatory program park-wide and ultimately statewide, to have a fighting chance of winning this war.” ■