Thursday, April 4, 2024

Lake Carrying Capacity – DEC Can Do This

Round Pond, Long Lake

Earlier this century, a group from the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) were asked by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, or DEC, to begin to tackle the problem of determining the carrying capacity of Adirondack lakes and ponds.

It had been four decades since the 1972 recommendation in the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan that DEC  “determine each water body’s capacity to withstand various uses, particularly motorized uses, to maintain and enhance its biological, natural, and aesthetic qualities.” The SLMP urged DEC to undertake this by prioritizing those lakes surrounded by public Forest Preserve and which were, even then, subject to intensive recreation pressures.

Around the year 2009 DEC was finally asking SUNY College of ESF to help them figure out how to go about his work. Among the SUNY ESF team assigned to this task was Professor Chad P. Dawson, who later would be confirmed as a member of the Adirondack Park Agency (in 2016). In 2011, following two years of work Chad and his ESF colleagues delivered their report to DEC titled “Adirondack Park Forest Preserve Carrying Capacity of Waterbodies: Phase 1, Selecting Indicators for Monitoring Recreational Impacts.”

Chad and colleagues had in prior years lots of experience surveying, measuring, and evaluating all manner of visitor use of Adirondack public lands and waters comprising the Forest Preserve, so he was well prepared for this latest assignment. The 2011 report was focused on one aspect of the carrying capacity of lakes problem, that being the impacts of human recreational activities and associated recreational development on lakes. The Dawson/ESF study was not asked to address the impacts on lakes from outside pollutants such as those causing acid rain, or from climate change.

Understanding carrying capacity limits from human recreational uses begins with an overall description of the scope or full extent of known impacts from human recreation on an area’s natural environment, its ecology if you will, and on its social carrying capacity, or the impacts we have on each other in recreating in the great outdoors. This is all studied in the context of an area’s legal framework, Article XIV of the State Constitution, law and regulation, and the classification of the State Forest Preserve.

Pilot Lakes in the Adirondack Waterbody Carrying Capacity Study of 2011

Pilot Lakes in the Adirondack Waterbody Carrying Capacity Study of 2011.

How to go about measuring any of this? Measuring changes on linear forest trails is challenging enough. Within the complex and constantly interacting shoreline, surface, and underwater environments of a lake the work appears particularly daunting. Daunting that is until you begin appreciating that out of all this complexity can appear discrete, measurable stand-ins for the detecting changes in the lake environment. These stand-ins are called environmental and social indicators, or specific parameters and standards that can be measured and monitored over time.

And if you select those indicators wisely, measure and monitor you can determine if the conditions in the lake (or shoreline, or mountain, or trail) are changing and if those changes are acceptable, or meet desired conditions, or not. If not, managers can then determine what to do to bring the lake or mountain trail closer to the desired conditions.

Put more succinctly by Prof. Chad Dawson et. al., “Indicators of change are the variables that can accurately represent a change in broader conditions in the water bodies, which would require management action to maintain the quality of these resources.”

The ESF 2011 report continues: “While many indicator selection criteria exist, there are several fundamental criteria used by all who are involved in the monitoring of water resources.  For example, an indicator must be feasible, sensitive, and conceptually relevant in a variety of settings (e.g., a remote wilderness area and an accessible recreation management setting… Recreation facilities (i.e., development) and visitor use types and intensity must be measured to understand the relationships between recreational use and impacts on ecological and social conditions. The Limits of Acceptable Change, or LAC indicators of change are the variables that are monitored to detect changes in those desired conditions.”

“The overall goals of the APSLMP…were considered the general goals under this LAC framework…We developed an appropriate list of indicators to measure as indicators of change caused by recreational impacts in the nine case study water bodies…These indicators were then measured in the field at nine pilot sites, which allowed some assessment of whether the selection criteria were met as anticipated or needed to be adjusted.”

Read the full report: The SUNY ESF 2011 report to DEC is quite a remarkable study about Adirondack lakes, and well worth taking some time with. In one place this study pulled together the ecological, physical, and social descriptors of Adirondack lake ecosystems, described in some detail the wide range of impacts of all forms of recreational uses, and chose a limited number of indicators by which to measure those impacts and change in the lakes over time. DEC surely received all that they could have wished. Unfortunately, DEC has done next to nothing with the ESF Phase 1 report.

Here is the ESF 2011 study in its entirety: Carrying capacity of waterbodies by SUNY ESF, Phase 1, 2011

The report tested the practical use of the chosen carrying capacity indicators. It asked, would these indicators work in practice on a wide range of lakes? Could they be adequately and efficiently measured by a small team in a short time span? And could that work be easily replicated on other lakes?  The study chose nine Adirondack “pilot” lakes selected for their spatial diversity, involving four of the major Adirondack watersheds, and for their diversity in terms of percentage of state land and their state land classification, from Wilderness to Intensive Use.

Pilot Lakes: Taken directly from the 2011 study, below are the nine pilot lakes tested by the study:

Table 2. Nine pilot study water bodies selected by size and land management classification.

Name of Water BodyClassification Size CategorySurface Area (acres)UMP Name and Land Classification
Little Jabe Pond16Lake George Wild Forest
Chapel Pond118Dix Mountain Wilderness
Deep Lake229West Canada Lake Wilderness
Stewart Lake231Shaker Mountain Wild Forest
Lake Colden238High Peaks Wilderness
Fish Creek Pond/Square Pond3135  Campground Intensive Use Area
Putnam/North Pond3185Pharoah Lake Wilderness and Campground Intensive Use Area
Meacham Lake41185Debar Mountain Wild Forest and Campground Intensive Use Area
Lake Lila41490William Whitney Wilderness

Indicators: Here are the measurable indicators of change in these lakes selected for future monitoring by the ESF study:

Table 8. Aquatic ecosystem condition indicators measured in pilot study of nine Adirondack water bodies.

IndicatorsPurposeApplicationNYS Standard or Guidance?
Non-native Aquatic Plant SpeciesTo detect presence of non-native aquatic plant species that may alter the aquatic ecosystem’s ecological integrity and have adverse synergistic effects when accompanied by other recreation impacts.All sitesNo
Gasoline CompoundsTo assess concentration of toxic (or otherwise harmful to aquatic biota) gasoline compounds released into water bodies from motorized boating.Sites with motorized boatingYes
Fecal ColiformsTo measure bacterial contamination that may result from: overland runoff of improperly disposed human feces and wildlife feces, direct release of sewage/bacteria, and improperly functioning on-site wastewater treatment (e.g. septic systems).All sitesYes
ChlorideTo assess increases in chloride concentration that are detrimental to aquatic biota…related to winter management of nearby roads used for recreational purposes.All sitesYes
Total PhosphorousTo determine levels of phosphorous concentrations.All sitesYes
Total Dissolved SolidsTo use TDS as one water quality parameter that may show aquatic response to recreation related pressures.All sitesYes
Dissolved OxygenTo use dissolved oxygen as one water quality parameter that may show aquatic response to recreation related pressures but is useful in determining stresses to aquatic biota.All sitesYes
Water TempTo use water temperature as one water quality parameter that may show aquatic response to recreation related pressures but is useful in determining stresses to aquatic biota.All sitesNo

Table 9. Recreation impact indicators measured in pilot study of nine Adirondack water bodies.

IndicatorsPurposeApplicationNYS Standard or Guidance?
Recreation Impact ScoreTo identify the recreational activities and development that exist at the pilot sites and score them according to the types of potential impacts they create.All sitesNo
Proportion of Shoreline DisturbanceTo estimate the proportion of the shoreline area with some known or visible amount of recreation related disturbance including vegetation, soil, and habitat fragmentation impacts.All sitesNo
Number of CampsitesTo identify the potential for the water body to be used for extended recreational purposes (overnight use) or more intensively; the amount of shoreline use; and associated impacts.All sitesNo
Roads (length)To identify access that allows certain types of recreational use, the amount of disturbance, and additional impacts created by impervious surfaces.All sitesNo
Trails (length)To identify access, the amount of shoreline use, and associated impacts.All sitesNo

Many Phases: The NYS DEC understood that the ESF report was just the first phase of a multi-phase study to develop an overall carrying capacity analysis required by the Master Plan. “Subsequent phases will select water bodies to monitor, develop standards under the selected indicators, estimate recreational use, and develop management responses for locations that exceed acceptable standards. The intention of this research project is to support resource planning and management by the NYSDEC. Under the APSLMP, the main management goal of the NYSDEC is to protect and steward Forest Preserve lands and water bodies while managing visitor use for public enjoyment.”

There has been no subsequent study. Why? On one level, staffing. DEC Lands and Forests staff (they are responsible for Forest Preserve aquatic systems, too) are very insufficient. Today, their small staff are focused on visitor use management studies (read carrying capacity) of highly used mountain trail systems, promising to use those methods to eventually tackle the lakes.

Accountability: But even with sufficient staff, DEC has been reluctant to undertake the lake work because it would ultimately make DEC accountable for its results. The carrying capacity monitoring of the lake indicators might result in the need to take management actions to meet particular lake desired conditions, and those actions might prove controversial.

Punting the Ball: It has therefore proven easier to rhetorically call for action. The DEC’s 2019 final Saranac Lakes Wild Forest (SLWF) specifically calls for a lake carrying capacity study and outlines the required steps. Clearly, the DEC had read Dawson’s Phase 1 to come up with that language. APA had also. By this time, Chad Dawson was on the APA board and was working as hard as he could behind the scenes to get the two agencies to come up with an overall framework and commitment to begin the lake work. Here are the minutes of an APA meeting in 2019 while APA was determining if the SLWF UMP conformed to the State Land Master Plan:

“Dr. Dawson said he was concerned that the carrying capacity on water bodies is not making progress. It has been addressed to some extent over the years with different UMPs, but there is no underlying process. This (SLWF) UMP, with 142 waterbodies, could have been an excellent example for the carrying capacity process.

Mr. Ernst agreed that it has not moved as fast as he and other Board members would like, but it is moving forward. He added that there is a process to develop the framework which will include waterbodies undertaken by the Agency and the DEC. Mr. Ernst said some of the improvements are dependent on monitoring and he is confident in it moving forward.

Mr. Stegemann (DEC regional director) said the process is maturing rapidly. He thanked Dr. Dawson for the attention he brings to this matter because it is important in the management of this Unit. From the standpoint of compliance with the SLMP, it sets the stage for this to be done in a thoughtful way with collaboration between both agencies. Mr. Stegemann said this plan has been in the works for quite some time. It is extremely important to keep the attention of both agencies to continue to move forward with this process, especially with the carrying capacity of waterbodies.

Ms. Feldman said the idea for carrying capacity started with earlier UMPs and that was the beginning of a new era, but we have not accomplished that yet. She commended DEC’s willingness to understand that we need to move forward with how the use of the Park’s land is monitored. This is a step-by-step process and we do need to come up with a framework for carrying capacity on waterbodies. Ms. Feldman said we have to remember the need for an assessment of carrying capacity was in the APSLMP at the time that this agency was formed more than forty years ago, and while there have been several attempts to work on this it has not been done. She said she believes that we have made significant progress on this since the Agency has been in existence.”

Ms. Feldman, Mr. Stegemann, and Chad Dawson are no longer on the APA, but Mr. Ernst is, and he is the APA chair. Mr. Ernst has subsequently argued for lake carrying capacity studies just before he and his fellow board members went ahead in 2023 to approve of more lakeshore development placing more recreational pressure on Lower Saranac Lake and on Great Sacandaga Lake, to name two examples.

Patience is wearing thin.  Last year, a state court found the DEC’s failure to begin the lake carrying capacity work “inexplicable.” This year, the state legislature is considering our collective call for $1 million in the state budget that would fund and direct DEC to undertake the study of the carrying capacity of waterbodies within the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest.

I close with an example. At a public hearing about the new State Land Master Plan in 1972, wilderness conservationist Paul Schaefer (also founder of Friends of the Forest Preserve) testified about a lake that, to his mind, had exceeded its social carrying capacity.

He said: “I vividly recall a trip I took into the Siamese Ponds one summer day…We had enjoyed every foot of the hike in…Here was something very special – a sense of peace and quiet of great quality, made real by the remoteness of the place. A few minutes later our conversation about the richness of the experience was rudely shattered. A plane came in over a low mountain, circled the lake with an increasingly loud roar and taxied up to a small island. The motor was cut and a radio blared rock music across the still waters. Two men made appearance, one with a fishing pole and another with a high-powered rifle which he started using on a huge boulder on the shore.

Needless to say we were both shocked to realize how fragile wilderness really is. I still remember the loss we both felt and the acute disappointment that overshadowed the splendor of the day…A single plane had degraded not only the Siamese Ponds but essentially the whole wilderness surrounding it. The special quality of solitude in the deep woods had been shattered not only by noise but by the attitude of those who destroyed this increasingly rare experience.”

Photo at top: Round Pond, Long Lake. Photo by David Gibson.

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.




13 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    I agree that a carrying capacity study for lakes that are completely surrounded by Forest Preserve land is/was possible. The only other uses of those water bodies is recreational. Water bodies within places like the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest are a complicated patchwork of public and private land with recreational, residential, commercial, and other uses.

    “Under the APSLMP, the main management goal of the NYSDEC is to protect and steward Forest Preserve lands and water bodies while managing visitor use for public enjoyment.”

    Much of the Saranac Chain of lakes is not only for “visitor use and public enjoyment” people live there.

  2. What were the key findings and recommendations of the 2011 study regarding the carrying capacity of Adirondack lakes?

  3. louis curth says:

    Leave it to Paul Schaefer to be way ahead of his time in 1972, when he explained why “social carrying capacity” elements must be included in deliberations leading to the adoption of the state land master plan.

    And thanks Dave for reminding me, and all of us of, Paul’s compelling narrative from the pristine and wonderful Siamese Ponds which drive home the urgency of such considerations.

    His remarks still stand the test of time – perhaps even more so today…

  4. Ray Letterman says:

    The link to the SUNY ESF report is not working.

  5. Paul says:

    If the DEC needs a million dollars and more people to do this study is it really fair to hold up the marina project while they figure this out – maybe someday? The DEC added a whole bunch of trailer spots at the second pond boat launch no problem, why is it such an issue when a local company wants to make some upgrades?

    • Joan Grabe says:

      I suggest you visit the former Hickok Marina which is slowly sliding into Fish Creek Pond, see the size of Fish Creek pond with houses surrounding the pond and the former marina and then look at the proposed “upgrades”. I think you will be as upset as the residents who are looking for some signs of sanity from the new owner, the APA, the DEC etc etc.

      • Paul says:

        I was talking about the work on Lower Saranac. The upgrades there look totally reasonable and a far cry better than what was falling apart there.

        This is part of the reason you can’t have a study that would cover the whole chain. Parts are very different than other parts.

      • Paul says:

        For Lower, going from 219 to 277 slips, and a switch to much of it it have floating docks to limit the impact on the wetland areas seems like a good change. Aesthetically it is going to look way better than the dilapidation it is getting rid of. To require a huge study to determine if a lake that is like 99% undeveloped can add 60 new boat slips is insane and why it is so difficult to do anything in the Adirondacks.

  6. David Gibson says:

    I hope the link to the full document is working now.

  7. Worth Gretter says:

    Thank you David Gibson for publishing this good info. I had not previously thought about what might go into a carrying capacity study. It is refreshing to learn that solid scientific work has been done to lay the groundwork. Now let’s get on with the job!

  8. Ray Letterman says:

    In bold on page 4 of the SUNY ESF Report
    “The main objective of the study is to design a research protocol and select indicators that will comprehensively monitor the ecological and social impacts of recreational use on these water bodies and surrounding riparian lands (i.e., this type of study considers all recreation related impacts and is not a boating capacity study).”

    I was hoping for something about “boating capacity” studies. But thank you David Gibson, this is a good start.

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