The 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.
When 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.
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.