Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Shoreline Regs Are About Water Quality

WaterQuality-3The protection of water quality is of singular great importance for the Adirondack Park and Adirondack communities. In the coming decades, if we are able to maintain stable water quality trends, this will help Adirondack communities enormously, not only for protecting the area’s high quality of life, but economically too. Clean water will be our edge.

Clean water is going to be a commodity that becomes less plentiful in the future. Communities that provide good stewardship for their waters will be communities that have something special to offer in the coming years.

As a society we know how to protect water quality. Engineers, landscape architects, excavators, and regulators, among others, know what protects water quality and what does not. Stormwater management is the key here. All too often though stormwater management is deferred, ignored or short-changed.

Shoreline regulation is not about aesthetics. It’s about protecting water quality.

There are many excellent guides to water quality protection. The FUND for Lake George and Lake George Waterkeeper published Do-It-Yourself Water Quality: A Landowner’s Guide to Property Management that Protects Lake George, but it’s applicable to any freshwater lake, pond, river, stream or wetland. (In the interest of full disclosure I helped write Do-It-Yourself Water Quality.) See other fine water quality protection guidebooks here and here. There are many on the web.

Shoreline buffers are not simply trees and bushes that block out the view of houses from passing boaters. They are very important for water quality because they provide critical ecological services to the lake or pond. Shoreline buffers absorb, infiltrate and block stormwater from reaching and polluting a waterbody.

WaterQuality-2When stormwater runs overland it picks up speed and volume. The greater the speed and greater the volume of stormwater the more it picks up sediments and other materials, such as chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides, and carries them to the waterbody. Watersheds are like bowls with the lake at the bottom. Everything runs downhill to the lake.

Every time it rains pollutants are carried to lakes and ponds via stormwater. If every property were stormwater neutral this would not happen. Most properties, though, export stormwater because they do not have an adequate infrastructure to capture and infiltrate stormwater. Drywells and rain gardens and swales all work well. Shoreline buffers are very effective as are different types of pervious pavements. These are all tried and true technologies. Low Impact Development has created a whole school of engineering around stormwater management to protect water quality. But, unfortunately, the house-here, house-there type of development in most communities in the Adirondacks doesn’t see nearly enough done on preventing stormwater pollution.

Maintenance of natural contours and forest cover is important too. Only about 1% of rain that hits a natural forest is carried off in streams. The rest is held by vegetation until it evaporates or slowly infiltrates into the groundwater. One mature tree can hold 20,000 gallons of water. A developed site sees 50% or more of the rain that hits it exported as stormwater runoff.

The amount of impervious area on a lot shapes stormwater runoff too. Buildings, paved driveways and walkways and patios are all impervious structures that create runoff. A typical grass lawn produces significantly more stormwater than a forested site. Gravel driveways are heavily compacted and produce almost as much stormwater as paved driveways.

Stormwater pollution is causing a slow, yet inexorable decline in water quality in the Adirondacks. Our chief regulatory agency is frozen in time, politically unable to modernize its rules or statute. Written in the early 1970s, the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) Act does not even include the word stormwater. The Lake George Park Commission has a decent set of stormwater regulations, but it doesn’t apply to modifications of existing structures, which constitutes a lot of development and stormwater problems around the lake.

Stormwater management is all the more important in the era of climate change. One change that we’ve seen is that wet areas are getting wetter and dry areas drier. In the Adirondacks and the Northeast US we’re getting 30% more rain than we did 30 years ago. The way the rain arrives too is different as more rain comes in hard, severe storms than in the past decades. Both trends are predicted to intensify. So, the sooner we get serious about stormwater the better.

Unfortunately, on lake after lake across the Adirondacks new homeowners scrape lands clean. Large houses are built to replace forested lots, lawns flatten natural contours, and impervious materials replace permeable terrain. Lot after lot is transformed from a natural, forested lot that helped to mitigate negative impacts to lake water quality to a lot that will forever export stormwater to the lake and load pollution.

In many cases it’s simply a choice of individual landowners. They can manage their lands in a way that minimizes or supersizes stormwater pollution. It’s better to minimize. Below is a good illustration of the choices of a landowner.

WaterQuality-1 One commentator on Adirondack Park affairs does a real disservice to the public by dismissing calls to improve regulation of shoreline development as simply something about aesthetics. This opinion has it that it’s all about greenies being offended by houses as opposed to legitimate concerns about the protection of natural resources.

Thankfully, some local governments, like the Town of Queensbury, have acted boldly to protect water quality. Queensbury has what I consider a model zoning code for water quality protection.

Queensbury takes stormwater seriously. Any new or modified property in the shoreline zone must create a vegetated buffer. They tell you how many native plants, shrubs and trees are required per linear foot of buffer and how wide the buffer needs to be. They require a variety of stormwater control devices to be installed to capture and infiltrate stormwater so as to prevent it from reaching the lake.

No longer can a massive building be built on a small lot. Queensbury employs a floor-area ratio that sets a minimum percent of a lot that must be kept in pervious conditions. For years people built huge buildings on small lots with little consideration where stormwater would go.

As a society we know how to manage stormwater. We know how to prevent stormwater pollution. We know how to protect water quality and natural resources. We just choose not to.

It would be a great thing if the APA adopted the Queensbury code. That would go a long ways towards terrific stewardship for Adirondack waters.

Clean waters will help the Adirondack Park immeasurably in the decades ahead. It makes good sense for many reasons for Adirondack communities to do everything we can to protect water quality.

Illustrations courtesy the FUND for Lake George.

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Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks.

He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century. He also worked at Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve.

Peter lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife and two children, enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks, and is a member of the Blue Mountain Lake volunteer fire department.

Follow Protect the Adirondacks on Facebook and Twitter.




6 Responses

  1. AG Gabriels says:

    Interesting article.

    However, Peter’s statement: “regulations doesn’t apply to modifications of existing structures, which constitutes a lot of development and stormwater problems around the lake” omits a major contributor to stormwater issues and that is the public road system.

    As a society we may know how to remediate stormwater but until attention to the taxpayer funded system is aggressively made by public leadership at all levels, and not just private development, we’ll be fighting a losing battle for water quality throughout the Park.
    AG Gabriels

  2. Paul says:

    Are there ways to capture the run off from a structure and transfer it back into the ground in a way that mitigates the effect of the development? We must have engineers that have designed these kinds of techniques? This idea of a vegetative buffer is a good one but it prevents many landowners from developing where they want to. With a good system you should be able to build the houses on the shorelines (let’s face it in the Adirondacks that is often where the build-able lots are, just look at any tax map) and make sure the water gets back into the ground in the ways that Peter describes that prevents storm water runoff issues. Personally the “well managed” place in the pictures is what I would want to build anyway but maybe we can build them both ways and protect water quality at the same time? Since it is not about aesthetics the regulations should address both types. Even the ugly one.

  3. Paul says:

    I think that much of the vegetative clearing that we see going on is due to the setback restriction. For example if you have to put the building 200 feet back from the lake you have to cut 200 feet of vegetation so that you can see the lake from the building. I assume that is part of what is going on in the “poorly managed” example above. One Adirondack camp that I have was built almost on the waters edge (built around 1940 on a rocky outcrop) it did not really require removing any vegetation nor is a roof much different than a rock when it comes to run off (in fact if you use a green roof it could be better after the building). As long as aesthetics is not an issue like Peter claims there are ways to build on the shore that save the native vegetation that could be “behind” the building. Allowing building on rocky outcroppings (very very common on many Adirondack lakes) close to the water would probably also eliminate many alterations to natural runoff that are caused by soil disturbances for foundations.

  4. Martie says:

    Peter –

    Much of what you say makes sense. The Lake George Association has been doing a good job of educating the public about the runoff issue, as well.

    My question regards how we can measure the degree of runoff. For example, how can researchers know that 1% of the rain on natural forests goes into streams; that a mature tree can hold 20,000 gallons of water; and that on a developed site, 50% of the rainfall leaves as storm water run-off? It also seems as if there are many variables (type of tree, type of soil, proximity of streams) that would influence such trends. Can you cite your sources for
    numbers like those you quoted?

  5. Paul says:

    I think you can build close to the shoreline and improve runoff conditions from what the site had prior to development if it is done properly. Personally I do think there are also aesthetic issues that should be addressed. But if you are only worried about run off I don’t think that setbacks really are as much of an issue as described. There are enforcement issues for example the “poorly managed” property above is in violation of APA regulations. I think that 30% of the vegetation over ten years is the rule. If you are not going to enforce what is the point?

  6. Laura says:

    Peter makes many good points in this article but I believe a very important one is not really addressed. That is the lack of enforcement, both on local & APA levels. There are shoreline regs in place which, if enforced, would go a long way to remediating any potential problems.
    The increased desire for a wide open water view over the last ten years has really impacted the park shorelines drastically! When shoreline owners clear & put in walls against park regs, other owners who abided by the regs out of fear of being cited decide that they also will clear their shoreline. Some walls are permitted under the guise of the need to stabilize the bank. A remediation of erosion issues utilizing sloped, vegetated areas would be much more appropriate & less of an impact on the wildlife.
    In Willsboro Bay, ten years ago the majority of the shoreline was vegetated & natural without walls. Today, there is more cleared shoreline than naturally vegetated when you exclude the undeveloped western shore. On the eastern & southern shore of Big Brook Cove at the southern end of the bay, there are more properties w/walls in front of them, w/beach below & lawns above than there are properties that have a naturally vegetated buffer in front of them. The same situation exists in the Farrel Bay portion and along much of the rest of the bay. Again, there are existing shoreline regs that would not allow these activities. At the very southern end in the NYS owned portion of Big Brook Marsh, an adjoining property owner brushhogged the grass/cattail marsh up to the Big Brook Channel on the western side of the marsh when the lake level hit a very low level last summer. This was the only section of the grass portion of the marsh that consisted of mostly cattails. The APA ruled that someone could clear up to 3 acres of wetlands/marsh in the Adk Park. What if this was done everywhere? These people didn’t even own the property they brushhogged,the people of NYS are the owners. This has had a devastating impact on the marsh. The immediate impact after the July brushhogging was the loss of frogs. After it was again brushhogged in August, the dragonflies which consume a lot of mosquitoes disappeared from the entire area. This year, without the protection of the dead cattails before grasses emerge for the ducklings & goslings, flocks of gulls have been waiting for any young to emerge. Wood Ducks, Canada Geese, Mallards & Common Mergansers have all lost their young this year. This area has become mowed lawn that is submerged part of the year. Normally you can’t see into the inner marsh but with the loss of this most vital component, one can see clearly all the way to the deciduous (wooded) part. Humans will also pay a price for this loss as the mosquito population will increase drastically without their predators. Also, the mowing will cause significant algae blooms.
    As more & more shoreline is developed contrary to the current regs, water quality will diminish, algae growth will increase & shorelines will no longer be able to support wildlife populations. Without enforcement of the current regulations, I see little value in enacting new ones.