A newsletter from Adirondack Explorer water reporter Ry Rivard
Jan. 8, 2020
I recently joined the Adirondack Explorer to write about water quality issues across the region.
Sometimes, it’s hard to imagine there’s much to worry about in an area as protected as the Adirondacks, now that acid rain is waning and after decades of environmental laws meant to clean up rivers, lakes and drinking water.
But there are still threats to our water — leaking lakeside sewage systems, farm runoff, warming water that invites toxic bacteria to grow, road salt that washes into wells, and even small bits of plastic falling from the sky.
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Is Your Tap Water Safe?
One of the most basic but overlooked records of water safety is the annual drinking water quality report that water systems send customers each year.
If you get your water from a town, village or water district, you’ll get a notice each year of what officials tested for and found — or, hopefully, didn’t find — in your water.
There are more than 100 regulated water systems in and around the park. About 220,000 people get their water from these systems, counting the Plattsburgh and Queensbury systems, which are by far the two largest.
Most water systems are small and serve fewer than 1,000 people apiece.
Recently, the state launched a new website that has recent reports from systems that supply water to more than 3,300 people. That means it can be hard to find some reports from smaller water systems, unless town and village officials make the effort to post them online.
So, it can be hard to tell if you water is safe, if you tossed your annual mailing or if you want to go back and see how water quality has changed from year to year.
A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency database has summaries of violations racked up by systems. Only 20 systems in the Adirondacks, including Lake Placid, reported having a totally clean record.
Just because a water district has a violation, doesn’t mean the water is dangerous — some violations are technical in nature.
That said, just because a district doesn’t have any violations doesn’t mean the water is safe — federal regulators don’t require tests for some contaminants we now know are dangerous, like the cancer-causing chemicals known as PFAS featured in the recent movie “Dark Waters,” which is based on a true story of chemical contamination in West Virginia.
Unfortunately, the EPA database also isn’t a great way to learn a lot more about the specific problems with each drinking water system — it takes more detailed records, which have to be requested, to learn exactly what went wrong. That can take time: I asked the state’s Department of Health for records for one water district that’s had trouble complying with the federal lead and copper rule. The department said it would take at least a month to get me the records.
For now, if you have run into problems with your water or know of safety violations that deserve a closer look, let me know.
P.S. Private Wells Go Unchecked
None of what I just mentioned covers private wells, like ones many Adirondack homeowners have in their yards.
Even though roughly 1 million New Yorkers get their water from private wells, those wells can have unchecked dangers for years on end. That’s because there isn’t a statewide system to ensure private wells are tested. As we’ve reported in the past, some of these wells are getting contaminated with runoff from road salt.
Environmental Advocates of New York, a nonprofit advocacy group, wants to change that. It supports legislation that requires wells to be tested when property changes hands. After a similar law was passed in New Jersey, about a quarter of private wells tested were found to have some contamination.
In Other News
- As my new colleague Gwendolyn Craig reports, “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.”
- Tim Rowland looks at flooding in the region.
- Politico is examining New York City’s failed attempts to recycle rather than export its waste.