By GWENDOLYN CRAIG
Lake George taxpayers received welcome news from Gov. Andrew Cuomo when he announced $9.4 million toward the village’s new wastewater treatment plant. The funding will help alleviate outsize costs to the 1,000 or so taxpayers who are supporting a system that sometimes serves more than 20,000 people a day.
The roughly $24 million project is a necessary water-quality protection measure for Lake George, but it has also been a taxpayer nightmare. Under a consent order by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the village is forced to upgrade its aging plant by August of 2021.
The village has secured piecemeal grants, and with the new state commitment it now has about $15.4 million. Mayor Robert Blais said the village needed to begin construction in order to meet the 2021 deadline, and it had already bonded for $17 million. Some work began in September.
Blais said some people would tease that he was breaking ground while $17 million in debt.
“I always said, ‘Have faith,’” Blais said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “The governor knows how important Lake George is to our region and also to the state. ‘Have faith,’ and the faith paid off.”
The new funding will reduce the village’s debt payment from $530,000 per year to about $263,000 per year over three decades, Blais continued. He plans to approach Warren County and ask for it to contribute $100,000 a year for 10 years toward the debt service. If that happens, Blais said the village will not have to go over the state’s tax cap when balancing its next budget.
Without the $9.4 million in funding, Blais said, the village tax rate per $1,000 in property value was looking to be about $8.30, an increase of about $1.80 per $1,000. A local Marriott hotel’s bill would have jumped by $48,000 under the previously expected rate increase, the mayor said, likely leading to a hike in room prices.
“We’re a middle-class resort,” he said. “We cater mostly to families. If you raise your room rates so people can’t afford it, economically, it hurts everything.”
Kathy Flacke Muncil, chair of the the Fund for Lake George’s Council of Business Advisors, said in a news release that the new state funding “is paramount to the future health of our regional economy.”
While the tax burden of a new plant could have had a negative impact on the tourist destination, not building a new one could have been just as bad.
The 85-year-old plant is a senior citizen in the world of aging infrastructure, and it deals with low flows in the winter and extremely high flows during the summer tourist season.
Chris Navitsky, the Lake George Waterkeeper, said since the 1970s the plant has been the source of nitrate pollution in the lake. Specifically in the lake’s major tributary, West Brook, where the plant’s effluent discharges, nitrates have increased by seven-fold. Nitrates are one of the nutrients on the menu for algae, and Navitsky and lakefront owners have noticed an increase in the green goo all around the lake.
While Lake George has never had a documented harmful algal bloom, Navitsky said the plant’s nitrate pollution and other factors have increased the possibility of one.
Since 2014, Navitsky and Jim Sutherland, a former DEC research scientist and current researcher with the Fund, have been monitoring the treatment plant’s effluent and areas of discharge on a monthly basis. Consistently, nitrate and chloride levels have been high. Both are byproducts of human waste.
Over a decade the village invested $3.5 million to make fixes to its existing plant, but Blais said about three years ago the village decided it was time for a new one.
“We decided the lake deserves nothing but the best,” he said.
Timothy Shudt, the plant’s chief operator, said one of the main differences between the old and new plant will be how to remove nitrates, ammonia, phosphorous and other nutrients.
In both new and old systems, bacteria are used to eat up some of the nutrients. A new plant, however, will allow operators to keep bacteria in a no-oxygen environment. That will allow the bacteria to grab oxygen molecules from the nitrates, instead of from the surrounding atmosphere. When the oxygen gets stripped from the nitrate, it turns the nutrient into a gas.
“It doesn’t go into the lake,” Shudt said about the nitrate.
Blue Herring Construction is the general contractor for the plant. Shudt said the old plant will remain online until the new one is completely finished. Some of the old system will be demolished, but some buildings will be repurposed.
Water-quality groups, including the Fund and the Lake George Association, sent out news releases rejoicing in the new state funding. As the governor’s 25th proposal in his State of the State agenda, the funding for the new system “will both ensure the continued health of the lake’s pristine waters and further economic growth throughout the region,” Cuomo said in a news release.
In addition to the $9.4 million, the state has provided $3 million through its Water Infrastructure Improvement Act grant and $2.5 million through the DEC’s Water Quality Improvement Program. U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, and U.S. Rep Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, also secured $500,000 for the village’s wastewater treatment plant through the Northern Border Regional Commission this summer. The Fund for Lake George has provided $200,000.
Blais said he hopes to get another $500,000 from the Northern Border Regional Commission in its next round.