Supporters back inspection program to protect water quality
By Zachary Matson
A proposed septic inspection program on Lake George cleared one of its final hurdles in a recent public hearing where support for new regulations outstripped opposition.
If the regulations don’t need any substantive changes, they could receive final approval at the Lake George Park Commission’s December or January meeting and go into effect next year.
The new regulations would require about 2,700 properties in the Lake George basin to be inspected to ensure a functioning septic system. Seasonal staff for the park commission would inspect about 540 homes each year, with residents required to get the inspection every five years. Residential properties will face a $50 annual fee, commercial properties a $100 fee and properties with a holding tank a $25 fee.
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The commission developed the standards over the past 18 months and argued they are necessary to prevent excessive nutrient loading into Lake George, which could exacerbate harmful algal blooms and other water quality problems.
“We have an obligation to address wastewater,” Lake George Park Commission Executive Director Dave Wick said at the public hearing. “Not only do we have the authority, we have a requirement to do so.”
Commission staff identified a large share of septic systems on parcels with “limiting factors,” like soil type, depth to bedrock and other factors that could limit the effectiveness of a septic system. Many of the systems were also likely put in 30 or 50 years ago and are reaching the end of their useful life, according to commission staff.
During the public hearing Nov. 22 at the Fort William Henry Hotel in Lake George, attendees mostly backed the proposed regulations and supported the stated purpose of limiting pollution sources. Some speakers noted systems near their homes are even older than 50 years.
Members of the Assembly Point Water Quality Coalition said the rules were desperately needed and urged the commissioners to address areas already showing signs of nutrient pollution.
“Priority should be given to lakeside systems 25 or more years old, prioritize HABs locations,” Lorraine Ruffing said.
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Dave Wilcox, who lives at Assembly Point, raised concerns that the program may be a “one size fits all” approach that forces some to pay for unnecessary septic pumping and intrusive inspection visits. He also pointed out inconsistencies with property distances and other rules between the Lake George regulations and state programs.
Almost 70% of the properties in the basin have septic systems, nearly 6,000 parcels, while the rest of the residents rely on one of a handful of municipal sewer systems. The regulations draw a “critical environmental area” around all septic tanks within 500 feet of the lakeshore and 100 feet of a stream, limiting the inspection requirement to those properties. Wick said anyone could contest their inclusion in the regulation zone and commission staff would confirm the location with a field visit.
Parkwide advocates have supported the regulations, eyeing the program as a potential model for monitoring and mitigating septic systems as a pollution source in other Adirondack lakes. David Miller, a clean water specialist with the Adirondack Council, said the organization planned to continue pressing lawmakers and state agencies for more funding to replace failing systems.
“There are few and far between places in the Adirondack Park with a robust septic inspection program,” Miller said.
Wick acknowledged the rules would likely result in a surge of needed septic repairs and replacement, increasing demand on haulers and contractors. The agency plans to spread the annual inspections geographically to limit the influx of permitting requests on the local municipalities that will have to approve new system installation. The regulations also include new basinwide design standards for all new septic systems.
State dollars for replacement costs
Septic replacement can be expensive, costing tens of thousands of dollars. A state program funds up to $10,000 in shared costs for residents. While Lake George is one of the lakes the program covers, it only applies to properties within 250 feet of the shoreline, and funding to Essex and Warren counties in recent years was exhausted without any Lake George requirements in place.
Eric Siy, president of the Lake George Association, said the organization supported the program and planned to “invest in its success.”
The logistics of the actual inspections are still being worked out, Wick said, including whether inspectors will ever need to go inside a house and how they will handle the numerous homeowners associations around the lake with shared septic systems.
“We are trying to get ahead of (water quality threats) by taking care of as many pollution sources as possible,” he said.