QUEENSBURY — Some people’s water intake pipes in Lake George look more like the debris of sunken ships, covered in feathery green and clumpy brown algae.
“It’s just nasty to think that your water is going through that to your home,” said Kathy Bozony, an environmental consultant.
It’s an underwater world that most don’t see, and while Lake George’s waters are still considered pristine, Bozony is noticing a troubling trend when it comes to lake-bottom algae.
Working with the Assembly Point Water Quality Coalition, Bozony snorkels off of area docks to collect algae samples and send them to a lab for testing. If she sees a drinking water intake pipe covered in algae and the homeowner is nearby, she will offer to clean it and take a sample.
With a $7,240 Lake Champlain Basin Program grant, the nonprofit coalition made up of homeowners, some with water quality expertise, is checking these samples to see what kinds of algae species are in them. Bozony said if a certain four or five species are present, chances are the algae is the result of organic pollution — that is, pollution from human sewage.
Lake George has often had benthic, or lake-bottom algae blooms, and not all are caused by human waste. But water quality advocates and lake residents have noticed an increase in these blooms, especially in more populous areas of the lake.
Lorraine Ruffing, co-director of the Assembly Point Water Quality Coalition, has lived on the lake for about 65 years. Her home is equipped with an ultraviolet light, which helps disinfect water before it comes out of her tap. But she’s had to clean those filters out more often than in years past.
“When we take those filters out, it looks like a slime bucket,” she said.
She does not think officials are doing enough to address algae issues, nor do many who are part of the organization. The group has organized snorkel swims, and have shown both current and prospective politicians and residents the murky green and brown goo growing underwater. But it’s not just the visuals that they’re worried about.
The other concern is not everyone who draws drinking water from the lake has a treatment system. Lake George is considered a Class AA-Special water body, meaning it meets its best use as a drinking water source.
When asked if there were health concerns associated with algae-covered drinking water intake pipes, the state Health Department responded that it does not recommend drinking water straight out of any water body and referred to its fact sheets: “Concerns about surface water as a drinking water source,” and “Harmful Blue-green Algae Blooms: Understanding the risks of piping surface water into your home.”
“The Department does not recommend using surface water sources for drinking water unless properly filtered,” the Health Department said in a statement. “People who are not able to connect their homes to a public water supply or to a drilled well and are using a surface water source such as a lake, river, stream or spring for their household water should be aware of the risks.”
Septic maintenance as a solution
It will still be a few weeks before the Assembly Point Water Quality Coalition gets the test results back for its algae samples, but in the meantime, its members hope more people around the lake will consider getting their septic systems inspected.
The group supports the town of Queensbury’s proposed local law, which would require septic system inspections prior to the sale of all waterfront residential property near Lake George, Glen Lake, Lake Sunnyside and on the Hudson River.
Town Supervisor John Strough said the Town Board has held informational meetings on the proposed law, and will likely set the date for an official public hearing at its next board meeting on Sept. 24. The local law could go to a hearing in October and, if passed, could be enacted as soon as 2019.
Strough supports the law. An argument could be made that, just as an inspector checks your roof before a home is sold, an inspector should check the septic system, he said. A leaking roof may affect the one home, he said, but a leaking septic system could affect the water quality of all the other homeowners around the lake.
“I think it will be a good model for other communities that wish to add another layer of protection to the water quality, to protecting their water quality that wasn’t there before,” Strough said. “... The larger picture here is everyone is talking now about their septic system, and the importance of the septic system.”
If the local law is passed, Strough said the buildings and codes staff will be trained to inspect the systems. Even residents not required to have their systems inspected can get theirs done for $250, he said.
The Assembly Point Water Quality Coalition pointed to the success Dunham’s Bay residents have had with The Fund for Lake George’s grant program to upgrade septic systems. Lake George Waterkeeper Chris Navitsky has seen algae reductions of 25 percent in the areas where septic systems were replaced in Dunham’s Bay in the last three years.
Walt Lender, executive director of the Lake George Association, said he thinks Queensbury’s proposed local law is a good first step, and he’d ultimately like to see a sewer district established.
“It’s even better if people are willing to do it voluntarily, or on their own along the way,” he said. “Septic maintenance is very important.”
Keeping an eye on other factors
Lender and David Wick, executive director of the Lake George Park Commission, said while septic systems are playing a part in algae, so are other things, like warming waters.
During Wick’s many swims looking for the invasive Eurasian water milfoil, he has noticed more benthic algae in developed areas than non-developed. But, he added, Lake George’s water temperature has also increased 4 degrees. People should also consider the increase of nutrients in the lake from stormwater runoff and fertilizer.
“It’s a combination of factors, I believe, would be an honest assessment,” he said of the algae blooms.
Larry Eichler, a research scientist at the Darrin Freshwater Institute in Bolton Landing, has been studying Lake George for about 35 years. He said there’s no organized effort to study bacterial pollutants at the institute, but he pointed to The Jefferson Project, a water quality mapping and modeling system studying Lake George.
The project is taking a closer look at shallow water zones, he said, where more nutrients are flowing from land to water. Sensors can detect the amounts of chlorphyll and other signals of algae growth.
“Lake George remains an exceptional body of water,” he added. “Our water quality is excellent, but we have to be vigilant and aware that anything we do on the lake or lake shore will have an impact.”
Ruffing and Bozony think more people need to see exactly what’s happening beneath the surface and take action sooner rather than later.
Ruffing said studies like The Jefferson Project tell people “about the state of the lake, but it’s not changing people’s behavior.”
“If you tell them we found organic pollution, you don’t want the grandkids drinking poop water,” she said.