By Ry Rivard
Builders and homeowners around Lake George are likely to face new rules meant to keep rain and melting snow from sweeping pollution into the once-pristine lake.
These rules, known as stormwater regulations, are common in cities across the country, but relatively rare in the North Country.
The federal Clean Water Act cracked down on large industrial polluters wantonly dumping chemicals into streams in the 1970s, but pollution kept getting into the nation’s waters. So regulators started going after smaller sources of runoff, including individual homeowners.
In the North Country, Lake George has been ahead of other communities in imposing stormwater rules, because the lake’s tourism economy so obviously depends on its clarity and many homes around the lake drink water right from it.
To that end, the state lawmakers who created the Lake George Park Commission specifically told it to regulate stormwater. By comparison, a recent survey of the Upper Hudson River watershed, which covers part of the Adirondacks, found only one local government in Essex or Hamilton County with similar rules.
The problem isn’t the rain or melting snow, which are both pure when they fall, but how quickly that water moves across land that is covered with roofs and concrete rather than soil and trees.
Because of that, the water moves faster and doesn’t soak in or get filtered. Instead, stormwater picks up pollution and mainlines it to lakes and streams. In a lake, like Lake George, where water sits around for eight years, all the pollution – fertilizer, road salt, even just unwanted rocks and soil – begins to build up.
Public officials and nonprofit leaders tasked with protecting Lake George are increasingly worried that such pollution will soon allow toxic algae to set up shop on the lake, driving away tourists and hurting property values. That has led to a whole series of new efforts to spare George from the same fate as Skaneateles Lake, one of the Finger Lakes near Syracuse that turned toxic and green after once being considered pristine.
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The Lake George Park Commission created the lake’s first stormwater rule in the 1990s, which is considered ahead of its time, but the rules haven’t been updated in over a decade.
The process has been slow. The proposed rules sat around in Albany for over a year. Now, the public will have until late September to comment.
Most stormwater regulations have similar goals and requirements – find some way to capture or slow down the runoff. So the big difference often ends up being how many property owners the rules apply to. The state Department of Environmental Conservation, for instance, has statewide stormwater standards, but they generally only apply to large new developments or something being built in such a way that runoff would go directly into water bodies that meet a federal definition of “impaired.”
That leaves a ton of properties, particularly older homes, largely unregulated.
The biggest change proposed around Lake George is that many existing homeowners who want to make relatively minor upgrades – like a deck or new addition – would now have to go back and correct drainage problems on their whole property.
Over time, the Park Commission says, this will help clean up the lake by cutting down not just on pollution from new development, but pollution from existing development.
“This new regulation gives the opportunity for us to go back and retrofit property to some extent and to capture some of the stormwater that has been harming the lake,” said Walter Lender, the executive director of the Lake George Association, one of the nonprofits that looks out for the lake.
The new requirements may require a fairly simple fix – gutters that send water to a rain barrel, or pond might do the trick.
Some homeowners may want to drill a hole in the ground called a dry well that they can trap water in before it runs to the lake.
The main thing is to slow water down and let it soak.
But one of the other nonprofits that watches out for the lake doesn’t think the proposed rules go far enough.
Chris Navitsky, the Lake George Waterkeeper — a nonprofit watchdog paid for by the Fund for Lake George — says the retrofit rule is too weak for two reasons. First, he thinks far more projects should trigger a property-wide cleanup, including putting in something as small as a shed.
And the cleanup only needs to capture a half-inch of rain, while new developments have to make sure their property can soak up two and a half inches of rain. He says everybody should meet the same standard higher standard.
He also worries that the new rules actually loosen old protections by allowing stormwater to get within 35 feet of the lake rather than an existing 100-foot rule. The Lake George Park Commission said the change is meant to give homeowners more flexibility on how they use their property while still keeping pollution out of the lake.
Navitsky said it’s possible to give homeowners more flexibility in cases where they need it without loosening the standards for everyone. He said each foot of ground the water can soak into before it gets to the lake offers more protection, since the ground acts to filter out pollution.
“Why don’t we get the most amount of removal we can, if our goal is long-term protection of Lake George?” Navitsky said.
One of the other headline-grabbing changes in the new rules would ban fertilizer within 50 feet of the lake. But two of the biggest towns around the lake – Lake George and Queensbury – already have a similar rule.
“I don’t think that’s going to be a heartache for anybody,” Lender said.
The proposed regulations don’t do anything to tackle one of the lake’s other major problems – leaking septic systems.
David Wick, the Park Commission’s executive director, said the commission didn’t have the “horsepower” to deal with that right now, though it supported other governments around the lake that have tried to crackdown on sewage running into the lake.
Decades ago, lawmakers also tasked the commission with cleaning up sewage, but Lender said the commission has never finished the job. Public pushback to that effort led to the commission “dropping and not picking it up again because it was just disruptive,” he said.