Changes lead researchers to seek new survey of park waters
By Ry Rivard
As climate change ripples across the Adirondacks, researchers and activists are worried they don’t know what warming water is doing to fish in the region’s thousands of lakes and ponds.
Now they’re looking to an old problem for a solution.
In the 1980s, acid rain was crippling lakes across the Adirondacks, but nobody was sure how badly.
To figure it out, the state helped launch a massive survey of the damage. The extraordinary effort, unlike any undertaken before or since, sent researchers through forests, across wetlands and up mountains to measure, sample and fish from half of the region’s lakes in just four years.
Between 1984 and 1987 the state-backed Adirondack Lake Survey Corp. visited 1,469 lakes and ponds looking for patterns in the geology, chemistry and life of each lake.
Surveyors found acid rain had emptied the fish from at least 100 lakes and ponds. The findings helped recast the image of the Adirondack Park, from a pristine refuge apart from the world to a fragile part of it. The work also informed Congress’s changes to the federal Clean Air Act in 1990, which have since helped curb acid rain.
Now, three decades later, the survey corporation’s limited focus has stayed on the remnants of acid rain. Even that mission is in danger of shrinking further because of budget cuts.
Over the same time, the climate’s changes have become noticeable, and other risks such as road salt runoff and invasive species have grown obvious.
This has prompted researchers and activists working with the existing lakes survey team to call on the state to back another survey of hundreds of lakes to figure out what’s going on in them. They have met with the governor’s environmental staff, Department of Environmental Conservation executives and legislative leaders about it.
They suspect new waves of destruction caused by warming and new pollution are taking acid rain’s place. How will cold-water fish, like trout, survive in warmer waters? Are warmer or saltier waters causing lakes to shut down? Why do lakes seem to get browner?
“What do we not know?” said Willie Janeway, the head of the Adirondack Council and also of the board that oversees the survey corporation.
The Council and the survey corporation are part of a group pushing for a three-year plan to visit several hundred lakes.
In an eight-page proposal, the group argues that climate change is the biggest danger because it will change temperatures, rain and snowfall patterns, ice cover, runoff and limit the range of trout. But those changes are mixed with the lingering effects of acid rain and the newer threats, like salt and leaking septic systems. “Many lakes are exposed to two or more major stressors simultaneously, raising the prospect of profound changes in their biology, chemistry and physics,” the group argues.
In a sort of worst-case scenario, a warming lake filled with salt would stop circulating—and mixing deep and shallow waters—each year and become stagnant, covered in toxic algae that feeds on a stew of sewage. The researchers hope that by going out, they can find lakes before they collapse, rather than after it’s too late.
The new survey, called a 21st Century Adirondack Lake Survey, could cost about $6 million. So it’s not clear if anyone can get the state interested, especially with its budget now in tatters. Even so, the team of researchers lining up to work on the project, if it were ever funded, is a who’s who of institutions that study water in upstate New York—Cornell University, Paul Smith’s College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the State University of New York, Syracuse University and the U.S. Geological Survey, among others.
It’s not as if no one is doing any of this work: Paul Smith’s College’s Adirondack Watershed Institute, for instance, annually tests water quality at nearly 70 lakes. Rensselaer is intensely studying Lake George.
But much of the research—by professors and graduate students, environmental groups or lake associations here and there—creates a patchwork of data about Adirondack lakes that fails to paint a larger picture of the whole park’s waterways.
Gaps are growing between what researchers knew during the heyday of acid rain research and what they know of current threats. The 1980s survey collected details of the chemicals in a lake, the lake’s temperature and the fish found there.
A few years ago, Taylor Leach, then a postdoctoral researcher at Rensselaer, tried to cobble together a complete picture of lake chemistry and lake life using data from different researchers that were doing one thing but not another.
She found “a mess.”
The survey corporation had new chemistry data but not new data on fish or what they eat, like zooplankton. Leach turned to the Adirondack Effects Assessment Program, a defunct program once backed by the federal government, to get data on lake life.
She called people who had retired from the state to figure out how they did sampling years ago so she could compare that to sampling done more recently. She went back over old paperwork to reclassify some small aquatic life that had been labeled one thing then and is called another thing now.
Eventually, she was able to assemble a larger picture of “long-term” conditions in 28 lakes.
That’s 1% of the lakes and ponds in the Adirondacks. The reliable information she published also covers just two decades, some of it ending when one program stopped collecting data on aquatic life.
While it may be hard to tie all the threads together, it’s impossible to replace a missing string.
“Once you miss a data point, you can’t go back and collect it,” Leach said.
After its big acid rain survey in the 1980s, the survey corporation continued to sample 52 ponds each month—a task that once required traveling more than 4,000 miles by car, 40 miles by foot or bike, and 160 miles or more by helicopter—until it faced budget cuts.
Now, though, the survey looks at just 37 ponds and it samples only seasonally rather than monthly.
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Part of the reason for cuts is that acid rain, the survey’s original focus, isn’t as big a deal. And what it finds is good news, like the slow recovery of Adirondack lakes.
“It’s not a bad problem to have, finding waters that are actually doing well, as opposed to waters that aren’t,” said Philip Snyder, the survey’s laboratory manager.
Charles Driscoll, a Syracuse professor who used the 1980s survey data to help write a major analysis of acid rain’s effects on fish, said the corporation hadn’t shifted its monitoring to look at new problems, like climate change.
“I think if the Adirondack Lake Survey Corp. was being proactive they would have been thinking about pivoting toward more emerging issues,” he said.
Now, it seems, they are. In the Adirondacks, every few decades, there’s a new survey to deal with a new problem. The first, started by the state in the late 1920s and early 1930s, looked at fears about logging and its effect on the fish. In the 1970s, research began looking at the effects of rain on fish. Paul Smith’s College’s ongoing work captures telltale signs of septic leaks and road salt.
“I don’t think you’re ever going to find many other places in the world where we know as much as we know,” said Cliff Kraft, the director of Cornell’s Adirondack Fishery Research Program. But that isn’t enough to figure out just how much things are changing right now.
Even if researchers found terrible effects, Kraft wonders what difference it might make in the current political climate. While acid rain research helped guide policymakers, climate research so far has not done as much at the federal level, where lawmakers have put short-term economic activity above science.
“Honestly, I live in a world—we all live in a world right now—where you have 100,000 people dying and people look at that and say, ‘What should we do about that, well, maybe we should go to the beach,’” Kraft said in a Zoom video conference just as the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak had passed 100,000 Americans.
Peter McIntyre, who will inherit the fishery program at Cornell when Kraft retires, was more optimistic that bad news could be turned into good policy.
Right now, there are some rules of thumb for lakes affected by warming waters. If scientists could make sure they’re right, they could produce work that shows how susceptible some lakes might be to pollution. That means towns and villages could crack down on leaking septic tanks before lakes became dangerously toxic—or show others may be fine as they are.
The work could also help the state figure out which lakes are worth stocking as waters warm, or help come up with breeds of trout able to cope with warmer waters.
“A lake is not a lake is not a lake,” McIntyre said. “It really depends on the details of how that lake operates.”