Fees, fixes and replacements would be mandated
By Zachary Matson
The Lake George Park Commission is moving toward instituting one of the widest-reaching septic system inspection programs in the state, covering at least 3,400 properties in the lake basin’s most sensitive areas.
A committee tasked with developing an inspection program has started to coalesce around details that include a $50 annual fee for a once-every-five-years inspection requirement. Officials are still months away from adopting the new regulation that could serve as a model beyond Lake George.
Commissioner Ken Parker said during Thursday’s park meeting: “I see a regulation in the future that’s going to be adopted by everybody.”
He added: “The only person who will be bothered by this will be the one who says: ‘What septic system are you talking about?’”
Open questions remain over whether the commission will manage inspections with internal staff or outside contractors; exactly which properties will fall under what regulatory standards; and how local governments and the park commission would process an expected surge in permit requests to install replacement septic systems.
“We are taking our time to get it right,” Dave Wick, commission executive director, said in an interview Friday. “We are trying to do the right thing to be protective of the lake and not overly burdensome on the regulated public.”
The plan arrives almost 30 years after the commission dropped its original septic regulation after a court challenge got the rule tossed on a process foul. Now, New York’s smallest state agency, the sole one dedicated to regulating a lake and its watershed, appears closer than ever to meeting its legislative mandate to regulate the discharge of wastewater in the park.
Commissioners at their October meeting authorized staff to develop the specifics of a regulatory regime, and a committee on Thursday started to dive into the details of what the program would look like.
“I did not expect to be at this point so quickly,” Commissioner Kathy LaBombard said.
Committee members appeared to coalesce around a program that would charge septic owners an annual discharge fee – in the range of $50 per year, according to early planning documents – and require a system inspection and pump-out every five years. The fee would cover the cost of the inspection, and the annual billing process would give commission staff a chance to offer yearly septic education and keep system maintenance front-of-mind for property owners.
The final cost of a program – and the fee passed along to septic owners – could change as the commission considers whether to hire staff to conduct inspections and how to manage the engineering checks required for new systems.
“We are just starting to get the numbers down, but that’s probably a fair ballpark,” Wick said of the $50 figure included on a summary of “septic inspection program concepts” recently posted to the commission website. “We don’t know how smoothly an inspection program would actually run.”
Members on the committee, which is made up of a mix of park commissioners, outside experts and representatives of state and local government, noted the importance of ensuring inspections are conducted with consistency across the park.
“For consistency’s sake you ought to do (inspections) with park commission staff, that gives us a basin-wide consistency we wouldn’t get otherwise.”— Walt Lender, senior vice president of the Lake George Association
Carol Collins, a water scientist who lives near the lake, said it would also be valuable for inspectors to collect other information about site conditions that could impact a system’s effectiveness.
“We have to look at everything going on at the site, note soil conditions, steepness… so that way we can start a really good monitoring program for the lake and have a better understanding of what’s going in this watershed,” Collins said.
Homeowners would be required to fix or replace failing or dysfunctional septic systems under a potential regulatory regime. But new systems would need to be approved by an engineer and processed through planning offices in local governments. Wick plans to discuss the proposal in coming weeks with leaders of the eight towns, one village and three counties that make up the park. He’ll raise the issue of managing what could be an increase in residents needing to replace septic systems after an inspection program is established.
Local towns have been supportive of the park commission working out a septic regulation and some have served as models – albeit on a smaller scale – informing park commission staff as they develop a basin-wide program. A slew of town boards adopted resolutions in recent months calling on the park commission to develop a septic regulation.
Queensbury Supervisor John Strough and Bolton Deputy Supervisor Susan Wilson at Thursday’s meeting both suggested local towns may be willing to contribute financially to a commission-run inspection program.
“We would support any endeavor and a great one such as what’s being suggested,” Strough said. “And if we have to participate financially the costs are not overwhelming and it’s such a significant cause.”
Why the need
There are over 6,000 septic systems within the Lake George Park boundaries, the primary waste-disposal system on nearly 70 percent of occupied parcels within the park. More than 3,400 fall within 500 feet of the lake or 100 feet of a stream that feeds the lake.
As they develop a potential inspection program, officials are focusing on the 3,400 properties located in the park’s “critical environmental area,” but it’s possible all septic systems in the park would fall under a new requirement, possibly at lower requirements if outside the critical zone.
Around 80 percent of the properties served by septic systems have at least one thing that could weaken effectiveness, according to a recent park commission analysis. The limiting factors include steep slopes, shallow bedrock, proximity to lakeshore and soils ill-suited to a septic system.
Also, many Lake George septic systems are decades old and some property owners don’t know that they are on a septic system, not a municipal sewer line.
“A lot of what we are trying to do is make people more aware that this is a problem if their septic isn’t functioning properly,” said Ginger Kuenzel, who lives near the lake and has been part of grassroots organizing to promote stronger septic rules and awareness. “They need to know what they have, how it works and that it needs to be maintained.”
Ultimately, she said, property owners will need a regulatory nudge to ensure their septic systems are functioning properly.
“I think you can’t expect people to do them on their own, there has to be some regulation,” Kuenzel said.
Chris Navitsky, the Lake George waterkeeper, in a recent interview said aging and failing septic systems could threaten the health of the lake and may already be contributing to an overall downward trend in water quality.
“Clearly, Lake George is being impacted by land use and septic systems are a part of that,” Navistky said, citing a rise in things like phosphorus and chlorophyll-a that could be contributing to a recent spate of harmful algal blooms that have developed on the lake.
In 2018, Navitsky worked with the Town of Lake George to survey septic conditions at over 400 properties and found that about two-thirds of the systems were antiquated, exceeded their life expectancy or weren’t being maintained. A separate study found that lake conditions improved after a septic system near the lake was replaced with a new one.
“We do know that septic systems leach nutrients into the groundwater and they do reach the lake,” Navitsky said. “We do feel there is enough supportive evidence that can demonstrate septic systems have a negative impact to Lake George”
Navitsky serves on the committee working on the program specifics and at Thursday’s meeting called for a program that ensured timely maintenance and pump-outs was conducted on septic systems in the lake bais. He said property owners should understand that septic systems as their home’s most important “appliance.”
“You are a utility operator, you are operating a septic system, you are treating wastewater, similar to your car to maintain, you have to have a similar mindset,” Navitsky said in a recent interview. “Lake George is a unique and special place, a drinking water supply for thousands, so it deserves an extra bit of responsibility and a bit more of protective regulation to protect people’s investment in their property and maintain public health.”
A potential blueprint
Septic systems scattered throughout the Adirondack Park – near countless lakes, ponds, streams and rivers – could pose a much broader threat to water quality and public health. And advocates with an Adirondack-wide interest in water issues hope a new Lake George septic program could inform programs around the Adirondacks.
“I’m very pleased with the progress we are making, the comprehensive nature (of the plans),” said David Miller, a water quality specialist with the Adirondack Council who has been following developments in Lake George as a member of the public. “The blueprint (the commission) is hopefully developing is one that other counties and towns could look at beyond Lake George.”
Navitsky agreed that the need for septic system programs could extend to every corner of the Adirondack Park – even if Lake George’s governance structure is unique in the state.
“Whether it’s Lake George, the Saranac lakes or Cranberry Lake, all of these are special places to people and they all have the same type of characteristics,” Navitsky said.
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