QUEENSBURY — Replacing some of the very old septic systems on Dunham’s Bay has already had a measurable impact on the algae that loves human waste.
In the areas along Lake George where systems have been replaced in the last three years, those forms of algae are already down 25 percent, Lake George Waterkeeper Chris Navitsky said.
Town officials are thrilled by the success, which may be replicated in other areas. Glen Lake residents briefly discussed it at a meeting on their septic systems last week.
“Dunham’s Bay is really our biggest problem area, and they’ve replaced 14 in two years,” said Town Board member Tony Metivier. “That is an astounding number.”
The replacements cover almost 20 percent of the properties along the Lake George bay.
It has been so successful that the Lake George Association hopes others will duplicate the effort.
“We’d love to see that modeled around the lake,” said LGA Executive Director Walter Lender.
The initiative was started by Dunham’s Bay residents, and then the Fund for Lake George helped encourage people to replace their systems by offering matching grants of up to $12,000 for each homeowner. In 2017, the Fund scaled that back to $8,000.
So far, the Fund has spent $104,000 on 11 systems. A total of 15 systems have been replaced on the bay. About 70 properties are located there, so there’s a long way to go.
But it’s already had a significant impact, Navitsky said.
The algae isn’t the actual problem — it grows on the bottom of the lake and is generally unnoticeable. But it’s an indication of where sewage is getting into the lake, where it can cause a multitude of problems.
“The algae is really the canary in the coal mine,” he said.
Collecting data on the algae helped spur people to action, he added. Residents created the North Queensbury Wastewater District and began talking it up to their neighbors. Finally, the Fund offered the matching grants.
“That helped kick it over the edge,” Navitsky said. “It was a catalyst. The key to making it work was it was a grassroots movement.”
Resident Alan Wrigley replaced his system almost three years ago, at the start of the initiative, when he joined the district’s board. He is now the chairman.
His system cost more than $15,000. But it wasn’t the cost that had stopped him before — he just never thought about his septic system or questioned its effectiveness. He had it pumped out every few years and thought nothing more of it until neighbors began talking about the algae.
“I said, we’d better do something. I knew our system was old — it’s probably the original, 70 years old,” he said.
When it was dug up, he learned that he had been relying on a metal tank. They are no longer used because they rot away and let sewage straight into the ground. He was relieved to see that his was still intact, but he replaced it with an enhanced treatment unit that uses an infrared light to kill any remaining bacteria as the treated effluent leaves the tank.
“That kills whatever is left,” he said with satisfaction.
Neighbor Len Simms also got his old tank replaced, but the excavation was a shock. All that remained of the metal tank was the top — the rest had rotted away.
He took comfort in the fact that he owned a larger house uphill from the old camp he bought on the lake. The sanitary system at the camp was rarely used. His new system cost $12,800.
Simms’ wife Barbara was among the residents who began raising the alarm in 2012. They looked up records for septic systems at Town Hall and found that most of the properties on Dunham’s Bay had no records whatsoever. That suggested they had very old systems.
“Built probably in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, round metal tanks, I’m guessing probably 500 gallons, moving to a cesspool pit. That was typical then,” he said. “That’s basically what you’re going to find around the bay.”
Those systems do not keep all sewage from reaching the lake.
He has lived on the lake since the 1970s. In that time, he has seen a “subtle change” in water quality.
There’s an increase in algae growing on the rocks. Areas that were once clear to climb are now slippery. Water that was crystal clear is now slightly less so.
“It’s a subtle change,” he said. “You question your memories. But the change I see, from the late ‘70s to 2010, is very noticeable.”
Wrigley has seen a change for the better since he and many of his neighbors replaced their septic systems.
“We used to have to clean our (dock) steps off so we don’t slip on them,” he said. “Now we don’t have to. And now you can see the bottom of the lake there.”
He has his new system inspected every year to make sure it’s in perfect working order.
“It just seems appropriate if you put it in, you make sure it’s working,” he said.
Simms wanted more to be convinced his new system was working. He actually collected some of the effluent as it was released from his treatment unit to the leach field. He sent the liquid to be tested as drinking water, and it passed.
“It was potable,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t drink it, but it’s potable.”