Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Water, water everywhere, but still the need to conserve

Colleen rows the boat on Long Lake by Alexandra RoalsvigWhile recent rains have helped some parts of the Adirondacks, other parts are stuck in a dry spell that began with the mild winter.

On Tuesday, the Town of Long Lake told residents to stop washing their cars and watering their lawns to conserve water.

Long Lake’s water superintendent, Keith Austin, said a dry spell left the town unable to keep up with current demand. The system serves about 800 full-time residents and a seasonal population of 2,000 people in a typical year.

Water use remains at or below normal because of the pandemic, but the dry weather means people are turning to sprinklers to keep their lawns and gardens green.

The town has several sources of water, including four groundwater wells and a reservoir, but one small groundwater well is down for maintenance and the others have been hammered.

“We’ve got let them rest, we can’t just hit them seven days straight, 24/7,” he said.

If wells pump up more water than comes back into the ground, water levels drop below the reach of the pumps.

Austin is now turning to water from the reservoir just outside of town, which he said he’ll keep an eye on too. That’s for good reason, because Long Lake itself, which is fed by some of the same tributaries, looks as low as it does in mid-August.

On top of that, forecasters expect ongoing hot weather ahead.

There are a variety of restrictions in place for Long Lake customers. For instance, people shouldn’t fill swimming pools or pressure wash and should wait until the evening to water their gardens, when water won’t immediately evaporate in the midday sun.

The town has taken similar measures in the past.

The restrictions don’t apply to people who get water from the Raquette Lake system, which is separate, or have their own private well or line into a lake or pond.

Tracking toxic algae blooms 

The confusion over so-called harmful algal blooms begins almost immediately.

Harmful “algal” blooms aren’t algae, they are cyanobacteria that have long been mistaken for and called algae.

Even scientists who study cyanobacteria can’t tell how harmful a bloom is until they can take water to a lab to test.

There are some signs of what to avoid getting near — water covered in what looks like spilled paint, for instance, is one telltale sign of possible toxins. The toxins themselves are still being studied, but some for sure cause liver damage.

Researchers are still trying to create an early warning system. In the meantime, the system to monitor bacteria blooms is cumbersome and multi-jurisdictional.

For most New Yorkers, the best way to look for and report a bloom is through the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Right now, there are several dozen suspected or confirmed blooms in New York, none of them inside the Adirondack Park’s boundary.

In the past, there have been a handful of cases each year. Eagle Pond in Franklin County has been a particular problem. There’s been confirmed cases of harmful bacterial blooms in each of the past four years, according to the state’s archives of past reports.

In 2018, according to detailed data for the pond, lab results found water there was definitely unsafe for drinking and, at one point, even unsafe for swimming.

A lot of blooms go untested and most official guidance is for people to simply avoid areas with visible blooms.

Bacteria are pretty simple beings: “They just want to eat and grow and be warm,” Natalie Flores, a University of Vermont researcher studying the dangers of cyanobacteria, told me last year for a story on Lake Champlain.

Champlain, which straddles the New York-Vermont line, has a separate reporting and monitoring system run by Vermont.

Photo by by Alexandra Roalsvig/Almanack archive

This piece originally ran in Ry’s weekly Water Line newsletter. Click here to sign up.

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Ry is a reporter who covered water-quality issues for the Explorer.

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