By Ry Rivard
In a troubling sign for one of America’s most storied and pristine lakes, harmful bacteria have floated atop parts of Lake George over several days.
For years, residents and regulators around the historic resort destination, known as the Queen of American Lakes, have worried that worsening water quality would invite toxic outbreaks or “blooms” of cyanobacteria, commonly referred to as harmful algal blooms. On Monday, the state confirmed one on Lake George after it was discovered by the Lake George Association, one of several nonprofits that looks out for the lake.
The bloom spread out around Assembly Point and moved through several bays on the south end of the lake near the Village of Lake George, and was dissipating on Tuesday.
“It’s a wake-up call for us,” said the lake association’s executive director, Walter Lender. “It really lets people know that Lake George is not immune to these.”
So far, Lake George has remained relatively clear, despite years of worries that it is losing some of its famed clarity and quality.
Cyanobacteria has soured other lakes in the region, including Lake Champlain, where property values in some of the worst areas have been hurt. This week, a harmful algal bloom also appeared in Mirror Lake, the lake that runs along downtown Lake Placid. The bloom appears to be the first documented bloom on Mirror Lake, according to Brendan Wiltse, the director of water quality research at the Paul Smith’s College Adirondack Watershed Institute
The confirmation of a harmful algal bloom atop Lake George brings to the surface worries that researchers, watchdogs and residents have had for years.
Kathy Bozony, an environmental consultant who has taken thousands of underwater photographs in the lake, said she has seen underwater algal blooms for years. Those blooms don’t show up in state records like blooms on the surface do. Nevertheless, she has documented cyanobacteria covering rocks, docks and the intake pipes used to bring the water into lakeside homes for drinking.
“It’s pretty scary thinking that it’s their drinking water going through that,” Bozony said.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Lake George residents were still awaiting tests to know if those toxins were present in Lake George. A bloom can be labeled harmful without being toxic. Likewise, there can be toxins in the water that are not discovered or labeled as a harmful bloom.
There are no plans to test the Mirror Lake bloom for toxins, becasue it’s not a drinking water source, though the toxins can hurt pets and livestock. Wiltse said the main concern is for pet owners along Mirror Lake.
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Both Lake George and Lake Placid are premier Adirondack resort destinations, in part because of their crystalline waters. On Tuesday, the state warned that people who drink water from Lake George shouldn’t during a bloom. Boiling it doesn’t remove the toxins.
November is late for algal blooms. They can occur any time of year, but most appear in late summer or early fall. Both blooms could be caused by recent warm weather, or because the lakes are starting natural seasonal water shifts that can lift bacteria and their food to the surface.
The harmful bloom on Lake George is likely to set off a new push to regulate the septic systems that are leaking into the lake.
About 6,000 homes and businesses send their sewage into septic systems. About 4,000 of those systems are at risk of contaminating the lake because they are old or neglected, according to research by the nonprofit Fund for Lake George. One rough estimate suggests over 200 million gallons of sewage are leaking out of septic systems near the lake each year. The lake holds 550 billion gallons of water, from which people around the lake drink.
On Tuesday, Carol Collins walked near where Lake George’s first documented bloom had been found, near her home on Assembly Point, a peninsula with more than 300 residents.
Decades ago, she had done her doctoral thesis on the same cyanobacteria that was now threatening the lake she grew up on. She had known back then that warm temperatures and pollution, like sewage, would cause it to grow.
“It’s too bad,” she said in a telephone call. “It’s sad for Lake George, but it’s not something we didn’t expect.”
Lorraine Ruffing, who with Collins leads the Assembly Point Water Quality Coalition, said she would be sending the governor and other lawmakers a letter urging them to crack down on these septic tanks.
Several local governments, including the Town of Queensbury, require people to inspect their septic tanks if they transfer or sell their home, but there isn’t a rule that requires everybody to check their septics for leaks.
“The state has to step in with some type of inspections,” Ruffing said.
There’s no sign of that yet.
This summer, the head of the state’s Lake George Park Commission said the agency didn’t have the “horsepower” to deal septic tank pollution, though it supported other governments around the lake that have tried to crack down on sewage running into the lake.
“Well, it’s like 2021,” Collins said. “I don’t know where all this time went, but we need to move on this.”