Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Biggest Threats to Adirondack Water Resources

The Adirondack Council has released a report that outlines eight major threats to Adirondack water resources. Titled Adirondack Waters: Resource at Risk [pdf], the 32-page booklet describes the threats and what can be done about them. The eight risks include: Acid Rain, Mercury Pollution, Global Climate Change, Aquatic Invasive Species, Inadequate Sewage Treatment, Suburban Sprawl, Diverting Adirondack Waters, and Road Salt.

Acid Rain – More than 700 bodies of water in the Adirondack Park have been damaged and native fish, amphibians, and other aquatic life are threatened. Although they may look clear and pristine, the appearance of water bodies damaged by acid rain is actually due to a lack of native life in the water. Recently, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR), which provides for the largest reductions in the pollutants that cause acid rain since the passage of the original Clean Air Act in 1963. Congress needs to put these new rules into law.

Mercury Pollution – Mercury is spewed out the stacks of coal plants and some industrial facilities. It’s a neurotoxin that can harm the brain and nervous system function and is taken up by plants, fish, and other animals. Mercury moves up the food chain and is passed on to us – a situation that requires strict limits on the amount of local fish we can eat. High levels of mercury have also been found in fish-eating birds, such as loons (now a “species of special concern”), egrets, eagles, ducks, and kingfishers, as well as in many forest songbirds (who eat mercury contaminated insects). George W. Bush’s EPA created mercury rules that because of the time lines for improvement and trading of mercury emission credits would do nothing to solve the problem. After New York successfully sued the federal government for allowing mercury to be traded, the EPA simply hasn’t bothered to come up with new rules. In 2006 the commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Pete Grannis announced that New York will regulate emissions of mercury from in-state coal-fired power plants to require a 50 percent cut by 2010 and a 90 percent cut by 2015.

Global Climate Change – Various models suggest that precipitation in the Adirondack Park could increase by 10–30 percent. Higher water levels could endanger dams, alter stream flow, compromise fisheries, and increase sedimentation, runoff, and may decrease water quality if wastewater treatment systems are compromised. Warmer temperatures may mean a decrease in snow pack and threaten local economic engines like snowmobiling and skiing. Brook, brown, and rainbow trout could drastically decline or be lost altogether if climate change is severe. We need to force local, regional, and national politicians, media, and public leaders to take these threats seriously.

Aquatic Invasive Species – Eurasian milfoil, water chestnut, zebra mussels, alewives, and gobis, are just a few of the non-natives that displace native species and threaten biodiversity; they interfere with fishing and swimming, reduce property values, and are expensive to control. The main culprits are boaters and fishermen who don’t take the threat seriously and bring invasive species into our waters combined with high phosphorous from sewage effluent and agricultural run-off that creates a nutrient-rich habitat for invasive aquatic plants. In 2003, the Departments of Agriculture and Environmental Conservation organized the New York State Invasive Species Task Force, which included in its final report in 2005 the Adirondack Park Aquatic Nuisance Species Management Plan. The 2006 state budget included a new
category within the Environmental Protection Fund for invasive species work and the funding was increased to $5 million in the 2007–08 budget.

Inadequate Sewage Treatment – Wastewater pollution is a threat to human health, drinking water, and recreational opportunities. Many local sewage and individual septic systems are aging or inadequate and the cost of their improvement may exceed $100 million. In 2003, Lake Everest in Wilmington was closed to swimming requiring Lake Placid to spend $14 million for a new treatment plant. The AuSable River and Lake Champlain are noticeably affected by wastewater. We need federal and state funding to municipalities and homeowners to improve our wastewater systems and protect our recreation industry.

Suburban Sprawl – New development means increased run-off and erosion, which increases water sedimentation and pollutes water bodies. Studies suggest that about 95 percent of rain water runs directly off a road or parking lot, compared with only 5 percent from a wooded area. Water quality can be harmed when as little as 2 percent of a watershed is converted from natural vegetation to artificial hard surfaces. Water being drawn from streams, ponds, and aquifers can also have deleterious consequences, even in the relatively well-watered Adirondacks – particularly if developments include snow-making for commercial ski slopes. More broadly, development increases per capita fuel consumption, and thus acid rain, climate change, and the many other associated problems.

Diverting Adirondack Waters – The newest threat to Adirondack water resources is out-of-basin water diversions, exports, or expropriations. Some of the biggest conservation battles in the Park’s history were over ill-conceived dams proposed on the region’s rivers. As water resources across the globe are threatened, battles in the future could be over attempts by outside corporations or governments to gain control over Adirondack waters for private profit or to meet demands in drier or more populated areas. The Adirondack Park presently has no law or authority to prevent underground waters from being tapped and exported from private lands and the authority to prevent diversions is limited even for public lands and surface waters.

Road Salt – Road salt threatens ecosystems and public health. Private wells and the water supplies of entire communities in New York have been contaminated. In 2003, for example, research by the Adirondack Council found that 52 municipalities across the state had reported high levels of sodium in their public water supplies to the Department of Health. In each case, sodium levels were above 20 milligrams per liter—a concentration at which people on salt-restricted diets are advised not to drink the water. The storage of deicing compounds is currently unregulated, and road salt is left exposed to rain, snow, and wind, leading to environmental degradation when dissolved salt leaches into aquifers and ground water. In many places, updated equipment would allow road crews to reduce the amount of salt they apply and use more modern deicing compounds.

Here are some interesting water facts from the Adirondack Council:

The Great Sacandaga Lake, created in 1930 to prevent the Hudson River from flooding Cohoes, Albany and Troy, is 29 miles long and holds back an average of 283,000,000,000 (283 billion) gallons of water from the Hudson and Sacandaga River watersheds. It is not the Park’s largest lake.

In 1883, New York City’s mayor appointed a committee to investigate the construction of a canal from the Adirondacks to the city to supply up to 300,000,000,000 (300 billion) gallons of drinking water per day. [See photo above].

The Beech-Nut baby food plant proposed for Montgomery County (a replacement for the Canajoharie plant) plans to purchase one million gallons of water per day from the City of Amsterdam, whose supply is located inside the Adirondack Park at Ireland Vly and Steele Reservoir, Saratoga County.

The combined volume of just four Adirondack Park lakes (Lake George, Great Sacandaga, Tupper Lake and Raquette Lake) exceeds 1,000,000,000,000 (1 trillion) gallons.

The Adirondack Park encompasses nearly six million acres of land, an area of more than 9,000 square miles. The Park contains the state’s highest mountain peaks and the headwaters of five major drainage basins: Lake Champlain and the Hudson, Black, St. Lawrence, and Mohawk Rivers. In all, the waters of the Adirondack region include 2,800 lakes and ponds, 1,500 miles of rivers, and an estimated 30,000 miles of brooks and streams.

Related Stories


John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for more than 45 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John's Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on North Country Public Radio and on WSLP Lake Placid.

He is also on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute and edits The New York History Blog. He is the author of two books of regional history.




Comments are closed.