By Michael Virtanen
Water is the lifeblood of the Adirondack Park’s tourism, adventuring and second-home economy, as well as its wilderness. Its lakes and rivers face multiple threats ranging from salt to human waste and invasive plants and aquatic animals.
Hundreds of volunteers routinely monitor or test many waterways, including Nevton Dunn, who has a home on Mirror Lake.
Dunn, a retired engineer, often canoes the roughly 2.5-mile perimeter of the lake in a lightweight solo boat, collecting any trash he finds and almost daily yanking out non-native purple loosestrife plants.
Last year Dunn discovered sewage leaking into Mirror Lake.
“It was black water and a sewer odor,” Dunn recalled. “It was very localized.”
The dark pool was about seven feet by ten feet, and evidently came from one of the nearby motels laundering clothes and sheets that also produced white, soapy, sudsy backflow, he said.
It was tested the next day, revealing within a few days optical brighteners common in laundry discharge. Later results from the Endyne lab in Plattsburgh showed at least 2,420 E.coli bacteria colonies in a 100-milliliter sample, indicating feces. That was more than ten times the level that would close a swimming beach. The leak, from a village sewer line, was found and plugged by a crew within hours.
Sewage leaks are not uncommon with aging, damaged or poorly maintained sewer and septic systems. Seven of the nearly two-dozen Adirondack communities with sewer systems have been ordered by state authorities to fix and upgrade theirs, including Lake Placid and the village of Lake George. Septic tanks at individual lakeside cottages and cabins present a second threat to clean water, one some lake associations address with rules for maintenance and repairs.
“We were fortunate that it occurred for an extremely short period of time, that it was noticed and corrected,” Lake Placid Mayor Craig Randall recalled. Spring-fed Mirror Lake probably has the most developed lakefront in the Adirondacks, and village officials want to keep its water as pure as they can, he said.
Located in Lake Placid, and sometimes mistaken by tourists as the Olympic village’s nearby and larger namesake, Mirror Lake is where fierce Ironman competitors have been known to swim over each other like mad lemmings. It has a sand beach at its south end. It makes a scenic vista and serene backdrop for the cafes and restaurants on the east side of Main Street.
“I think it’s under threat, but it’s in good shape,” Dunn said. “It’s spectacularly clean.”
But it’s where Dunn found the black, odorous discharge coming from a stormwater drain near the bottom of Main Street and Saranac Avenue on the lake’s western shore.
“One thing you probably don’t know is that I discovered this the year before, and I called the [Department of Environmental Conservation],” Dunn said. “And the problem with this sewage thing was it only happened when it backed up. By the time they got here, there was not too much evidence except a little milky water there.”
Sewage apparently went into an abandoned sewer line when an old lift station pumped it, and from there it leaked into a stormwater drain and flushed into the lake, Randall said. The village replaced the century-old sewer line in the vicinity and removed the lift station last spring, part of an already planned $1.2 million project, he said.
The village used a $289,000 state grant and $866,000 low-interest loan from New York’s Environmental Facilities Corporation. It’s one of ten municipalities in the Adirondack Park that have been fixing sewers and treatment plants since 2015 with similar financing under a major Cuomo administration program.
The others are Saranac Lake, Willsboro, Elizabethtown, Lake George Village, Ausable, Peru, Ticonderoga, Tupper Lake Village and Hague, using $16.6 million in grants to pay up to 25 percent of $66.3 million of projects. In a report last year, the Adirondack Council said several other communities got smaller grants for related work and another $85 million of projects need to be done.
Lake Placid has been under a DEC consent order since 2004 to perform sewer improvements. It has “sliplined” the old, hard-to-reach sewer pipe that runs under buildings on the Main Street lakeshore—installing a smaller pipe inside it—and rerouted some flow to a now sliplined pipe on the other side of the street, Randall said. Upgrades of the village’s stormwater system and water lines are planned for next spring.
Without Dunn paying close attention, the leak could have continued for a fairly long time and might not have been noticed until there were nutrient-fed algae blooms in Mirror Lake, said Brendan Wiltse, science and stewardship director at the Ausable River Association. Dunn, who was a board member when he found the sewage again on September 21, 2017, called Wiltse, who collected samples before the sewage dissipated.
“Overall I’d say the water quality is good within the Ausable watershed,” Wiltse said. “We have the advantage of having a lot of protected land, particularly in the headwaters, which helps sort of buffer some of these problems we tend to see in places like Mirror Lake.”
The watershed covers 512 square miles, fed by seventy streams, including the Chubb River and Black Brook, with ninety-four miles of river channel. The association says it monitors twenty-five stream locations biweekly, and samples Upper and Lower Cascade lakes, Taylor and Butternut ponds, Lake Everest and Mirror Lake.
Meanwhile, Wiltse and Dan Kelting, executive director of the Adirondack Watershed Institute, confirmed there’s a deeper threat to Mirror Lake in particular and to others near state roads that have been heavily salting for decades to melt ice.
In Mirror Lake, Wiltse said testing indicated it failed to “turn over” the last two springs, meaning the water didn’t fully circulate from bottom to top. It had low levels of dissolved oxygen below and high levels of salt’s sodium and chloride components there.
That can be deadly for fish.
“We don’t know of another water body in the Adirondacks that’s experiencing that phenomenon,” Wiltse said. “It doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”
In a test this winter, the DEC plans to use alternatives to salting on a stretch of Route 86 that becomes Main Street in Lake Placid. A similar test is planned on state Route 9N along Lake George.
Separately, the Adirondack Watershed Institute at Paul Smith’s College, using some ninety volunteers last year, has posted test results from sixty-seven Adirondack lakes throughout the park. They showed most had average transparency of about four meters, relatively neutral pH, moderate or not significant salt levels, and intermediate or low phosphorous and chlorophyll, nutrients associated with algae production.
There were exceptions, like Amber Lake in the northwestern Adirondacks, with especially high nutrient levels and low transparency;
Big Moose Lake in the western Adirondacks, with high acidity; and Butternut Pond near the Northway in the northeastern Adirondacks, with high salt levels.
On Jenny Lake, at the southeastern edge of the Adirondacks, Pierce Schmidt and Robin Stocks are among a handful of camp owners who have been collecting water samples in another volunteer testing program. It includes 170 sites across the state and more than two-dozen water bodies inside the park.
Eight times a summer, observations and lab samples from the nearly ninety-acre privately owned lake are submitted to the DEC’s Citizens Statewide Lake Assessment Program, called CSLAP.
“This is the easy, fun part,” said Stocks, in a rowboat in early September. She took notes while Schmidt measured water clarity and temperature and collected samples from near the surface and the bottom. “This is hard to do alone,” she said.
The lake surface was dark green and lightly rippling in late summer. A disk lowered from the boat was visible down to 1.5 meters, less than the historic average and less than earlier in the summer, raising questions about turbidity, possibly from rainfall.
“It’s not crystal clear,” said Stocks, a retired nurse. There’s some suspended particles in the water and the lake has a silt bottom. “As a swimmer, there’s a lot of weed growth,” she said.
Afterward, in Schmidt’s kitchen, they repoured, packaged, labeled and prepared their samples and report for shipping to a state lab, following detailed printed instructions. They would measure phosophorous, nitrogen, chlorophyll, calcium, pH, conductivity and algae.
Jenny Lake has two member associations, sixty-six camps and cottages along one shoreline, and commonly owned, undeveloped, tree-covered land on the other side. The plan is to leave it that way, Stocks said.
There’s also a mandatory septic system inspection of each residence at least once every five years under the associations’ rules, said Schmidt, a retired veterinarian.
If they’re not up to par, owners are notified and association rules call for fixing problems before they can keep using them, he said. Jenny Lake also has no lawns, no nearby paved roads, and no acidity issue with limestone bedrock, he said.
Separate testing by the lake’s two beaches showed seven and twelve E.coli. colonies per 100 milliliters, Stocks said. That’s a fairly low level that could have come from a dead animal, she said.
CSLAP reports from the DEC on individual lakes are posted online by the New York State Federation of Lake Associations.
In the 2.6 million-acre Adirondack Forest Preserve, with no residences except some scattered ranger outposts, the water quality in streams and lakes still faces enough of an impact from humans and possibly other mammals that Wiltse tested for backcountry E.coli.
The ten tested sites in the popular High Peaks Wilderness, which includes the headwaters of the Ausable River watershed, showed the fecal indicator in all of them at least once, indicating the water might be unsafe to drink without filtering or other treatment.
Counts of E.coli bacteria per 100 milliliters ranged from zero to sixty colonies, all well below the threshold of 235 that would close a public swimming beach in New York. Some sites were tested twice.
“So there’s no concern with jumping in a stream in the High Peaks like you’re going to get sick,” Wiltse said. “But pretty much all the samples had E.coli in them.”
With the number of High Peaks hikers increasing, the association two years ago began placing more portable toilets at popular trailheads.
The Hudson Riverkeeper does similar testing along the waterway that showed enterococcus counts ranging up to 104 at the Tahawus Road Bridge in Newcomb this summer.
The DEC advises backcountry visitors to bury their waste and toilet paper in catholes dug at least six inches deep and 200 feet from water, campsites and trails. It has been clear, Wiltse said, that some people aren’t doing that.