Wednesday, June 2, 2021

The lakes don’t look like they used to

lakes recover from acid rainOver the past year, I’ve tried to gather data on the health of Adirondack lakes, despite major gaps.

So when a researcher emailed me out of the blue to say he’d just done a study of how lakes were recovering from acid rain and changing colors, I gave him a call.

The researcher, Paul Bukaveckas, is a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. But he was here a few decades ago studying the effects of acid rain on Adirondack lakes in the late 1980s.

His new research, which brought him back to 20 Adirondack lakes in recent years, helps confirm what a few people have started talking about: As lakes recover from the effects of acid rain they are turning browner. That’s a good thing, unlike the brown in other lakes that may be the result of pollution.

Bukaveckas said acid rain had bleached lakes via a chemical process that is not yet fully understood. The effect was to clear the natural brown color of organic material, like tannins. Now that the acid from acid rain is dissipating, those brown colors are able to express themselves.

A few days ago, we published a Q&A about acid rain, based on Bukaveckas’ recent work, the work of other researchers and some of our reporting over the past year or so.

Bukaveckas’ work is great, but it also highlights the gaps that exist between what we knew when he was first in the Adirondacks and what we know now. As acid rain declined, so did money for monitoring, which has caused gaps in what we know about the health of Adirondack waterways. That’s an issue we’ve also covered as other researchers and activists have pushed for a new major state-backed study of lakes, akin to the work that was done decades ago to establish how acid rain had changed lakes. Acid rain is obviously less of a problem, but climate change and pollution — from shoreline septics, road salt runoff and other contamination — are new threats.

Lake George Study

The Lake George Park Commission is going to study the pollution going into that lake from shoreline septic tanks.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of publicity in the basin recently concerning this. We want to get the facts down and see if there are any probable directions for the commission to go in,” Bruce Young, chairman of the state commission, said during a meeting last week, according to the Post Star.

Some of that attention has come from us. Earlier this year, our reporting pointed out that the commission was given the authority in 1987 to regulate wastewater going into the lake but today, some 30 years later, the Park Commission doesn’t have a single person working for it that regulates wastewater.

A study may not be enough for some around the lake, given that local governments have already begun approving their own regulations in the absence of state rules.

Dave Wick, the head of the Park Commission, wrote about the planned study in a recent Albany Times Union op-ed, calling Lake George one of the most highly protected in the country.

Photo: Water scooped from Twitchell Lake in the western Adirondacks shows a tint from matter in surrounding wetlands — a sign of what researcher Paul Bukaveckas says is recovery from former acidity. “Notice that it is not murky, just stained,” he says. Photo courtesy of Paul Bukaveckas

Editor’s note: This first appeared in our 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.

6 Responses

  1. Bill Ott says:

    If that cup of water indicates a healthy lake, then I must be in the prime of health myself.

  2. Jim Fox says:

    Clear Lake, east of the RedHorse Trail and above Stillwater Reservoir has always been clear, and according to old-timers never had any trout. It was clear before midwestern acid rain. Ry, how would water scientists explain this?

    • JT says:

      I am not a water scientist but will take an educated guess. Was looking at Clear Lake on a topo map and it appears to have a very small watershed. Perhaps it is spring fed. So there are less opportunities for the tannins to enter the pond from the surrounding area. It may be too clean to support trout, lacking biological activity. One of these days/years, I want to hike back in there and check it out.
      Another pond comes to mind, that is Bear Pond by Upper St. Regis Lake. Small watershed and very deep causes blue light to radiate back out so the water appears bright blue.

  3. Jim Fox says:

    Sounds plausible to me JT. I never considered it’s watershed. Thanks.

  4. Bill Ott says:

    Was at Clear Lake in ’94 with my canoe and remember it like it was yesterday. Stepped out into what I thought was maybe knee-deep water and went in up to my neck. It was that clear.

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