Properties throughout the Lake George watershed impact Lake George’s water quality. Residents and property owners have a role in the protection and stewardship of the lake.
The water quality of Lake George is impacted by the decisions and practices of every property owner throughout the watershed. The amount of lawn fertilizer used, the number of trees maintained on a property, the size of a driveway, and whether a stream or shoreline is stripped of its natural buffer or a robust natural buffer is maintained—these are all decisions made by thousands of individual property owners that impact the health of Lake George and its surrounding environment. No matter where we live in the Lake George watershed, the way we manage our property is a choice that affects the lake’s water quality.
The Five Common Landscapes of Lake George
In the Lake George watershed there are five common landscapes. Every landowner around the lake is responsible for a property in at least one of these landscapes, each with its own challenges and impacts. See Figure 1 to see which landscape around the lake you live in.
- Developed Hamlet: Urbanized areas with parking lots, main roads and buildings on small lots, such as the Village of Lake George and the hamlet areas of Bolton Landing and Hague.
- Upland Development: Areas where buildings are located on mountain- sides and ridgelines, often accessed by long driveways over steep terrain.
- Shoreline Development: Areas where buildings are located on or near the lake.
- Rural Residential Development: Neighborhoods of houses on lots of various sizes, connected by roads, such as Middle Road in Lake George, Federal Hill Road in Bolton, and parts of Gull Bay and Mossy Point.
- Natural Forest: Lands that include public land in the Adirondack Forest Preserve and the vast amount of privately owned forests, which are largely undeveloped with few roads.
Roughly 95% of the land that surrounds Lake George remains as natural forestland, undeveloped without roads and houses. This means that developed lands make up just 5% of the Lake George watershed. Though just a small percentage of the total watershed area, developed lands have a disproportionate and significant impact on the lake’s water quality.
- From the lakeshore to the ridge tops, property management impacts Lake George.
- Lake George water quality has steadily declined over the past several decades due to land use and development.
- Stormmwater runoff is widely recognized today as the single biggest threat to the water quality of Lake George.
- There are many land management practices that mitigate the impacts of development, while providing property owners with the full use and enjoyment of their lands.
Residents and property owners have a role in the protection of Lake George through excellent property management.
What is a Watershed?
A watershed is an area of land where rain or snow eventually drains into a common body of water. The precipitation moves through a network of drainage pathways, both underground and on the surface. Generally, these pathways converge into streams and rivers that become progressively larger as the water moves downstream toward its destination, which could be a lake or ocean. Every tributary, stream and river is part of a watershed, and small watersheds join to become larger ones. Watersheds come in all shapes and sizes. Some are thousands of square miles and others are just a few acres.
Think of our watershed as a bowl, with Lake George at the bottom. Everything runs down the sides of the bowl. Water that lands on top of Tongue Mountain, for instance, is either infiltrated into the groundwater or runs downhill into a stream. All of which eventually reaches the lake. Figure 2 illustrates how water moves through the watershed.
Rain that falls onto the ground and is not infiltrated or ponded in a pool, becomes runoff as it flows across the land surface. This runoff often collects contaminants and results in pollution. There are two sources of pollution that affect a watershed:
- Point-source pollution, such as industrial waste discharges, refers to pollution that empties into a body of water from one direct source, such as a pipe or storm drain.
- Nonpoint-source pollution comes from varied sources, such as oil that has dripped from a car in a parking lot, fertilizers applied to a yard or from a poorly functioning septic system. All of these sources end up in a watershed’s final destination, which in this case is Lake George.
The Lake George watershed includes more than 149,000 acres, or nearly 233 square miles. The surface area of Lake George is about 28,000 acres. There is about a 5:1 ratio of land area to water area. Compared to other watersheds, this is a small land-to-water ratio. For example, the ratio in the Lake Champlain watershed is 19:1. This means that the Lake Champlain watershed has a much larger land area that impacts its water quality. The small land-to- water ratio is one reason that the water quality of Lake George has been protected for so long. Despite this, however, the developed areas in the Lake George watershed have had a significant impact, causing a steady decline in water quality.
The deterioration of the water quality of Lake George has been well documented by scientific research. Public observations reinforce this research. Many residents and regular summer visitors have noticed that the lake is not as clear as it used to be and that algae is more abundant on the lake bottom, rocks and docks.
Many links have been established between specific land use practices and negative impacts to water quality. The health of the lake will improve if landowners in the watershed—from the southern basin to the lake’s north end and from shoreline to mountaintop—practice better property management with an awareness of their impact to water quality. The research involving improved land use practices is compelling. Fortunately, there are examples of superb property management where water quality protection is a primary concern. But these are counterbalanced by many poor land use practices. This is unfortunate since there are many ways to mitigate the impacts of land use while allowing property owners to fully use and enjoy their land. Practices that mitigate negative impacts of land use include rain gardens, regular septic system maintenance, vegetated shoreline and stream buffers, and the elimination of fertilizers and pesticides.
Stormwater runoff is widely recognized today as one of the biggest threats to the water quality of Lake George. Stormwater runoff occurs during and after a rainstorm or snowmelt, as water flows from building roofs, across lawns, driveways, parking lots, and roads. Changes to land increase stormwater runoff when natural forest is replaced with hard impervious surfaces. These surfaces prevent infiltration and force water to flow over land, collecting pollutants as it makes its way to Lake George. Figure 3 shows how stormwater travels over the land surface to Lake George.
Land use activities, such as clearing, excavation and grading, change land characteristics, which then change the natural circulation of water. In undisturbed forest conditions, an estimated 40-60% of the rainfall will infiltrate into the ground, 40- 50% will be lost through evapotranspiration and 1% will result in surface runoff. (Evapotranspiration is the process of water loss through all parts of a plant, such as roots and leaves.) When a site is cleared and graded, this balance changes to 30% infiltration, 20% evapotranspiration, and 50% in surface runoff.
Although development changes may be small and seem inconsequential on an individual site, the collective effect of in- creased stormwater runoff from numerous properties throughout the Lake George watershed is substantial. As stormwater runoff increases in volume it carries sediment and soil, as well as nutrients and pollutants, to nearby streams or directly into Lake George.
Handling stormwater onsite through retention and infiltration is a basic principle for good property management. No stormwater runoff should be allowed to exit a property.
Local regulations require that no increased stormwater leaves your property. A simple principle for landowners is that all stormwater should be treated onsite and as close to where it originates as possible.
Stormwater Impacts on Stream Health
Streams play an important role in a watershed. Besides supplying water to lakes and rivers, they provide habitat for a host of both land and aquatic wildlife. During the drier summer months, streams rely on the groundwater, fed through infiltration. But when the infiltration is limited because land use has created stormwater runoff over land, water flow is reduced. The issue is compounded during a storm, when high volumes of runoff flow
through the same stream channels, causing undue erosion and the undercutting of stream banks. This can result in flash flooding and alter stream courses. Degraded stream channels supply even more sediment to Lake George.
The cumulative impacts of stormwater runoff in these streams significantly harm aquatic ecosystems. Spawning habitat on rocky stream bottoms are buried in sediment. Increased temperatures from high volumes of warmer stormwater stress macroinvertebrates such as crayfish and insects that other animals rely on for food.
Properly Managing Stormwater
Today, there are effective ways to manage stormwater runoff and protect natural resources, but all too often we fail to implement good stormwater management systems. There are many effective designs and technologies to control stormwater so that it is infiltrated at its source. Yet, stormwater management systems are often poorly understood, under designed or not constructed. The future health of Lake George hinges on our ability to vastly improve stormwater management and treatment throughout the watershed. Many Low Impact Development (LID) practices for improved stormwater control are detailed in this guide.
Development often changes the hydrology of land so that less is infiltrated into the ground or retained onsite and evaporated, which results in more stormwater flowing across the surface, where it collects nutrients and pollutants, which are then carried to Lake George. Figure 4 shows many ways that changes to a site can impact stormwater.
A general rule of thumb is that for properties of one acre or more, two-thirds should remain as natural forest. On properties of an acre or less, one-half should remain as natural forest. The best treatment for stormwater is natural forest and an effort should be made to retain as much as possible.
The most effective way to manage runoff is to capture, infiltrate and treat stormwater onsite so that it has the least negative impact on the surrounding environment. Each landowner should strive to retain and treat all stormwater on their property.
Lake George Water Quality is Declining
The evidence is clear that Lake George water quality is declining. Indicators of high water quality include excellent water clarity, low productivity (measured by plant growth) and low nutrient levels. Though the lake’s water quality remains among the highest in the eastern U.S., the constant loading of high levels of nutrients through stormwater runoff is changing Lake George. The most significant changes are the increases in chlorophyll-a, increases on orthophosphates, and algal blooms that have become a regular occurrence in parts of the lake.
Scientific research over the past 40 years in Lake George has found a substantial increase in chlorophyll-a, the best proxy of phytoplankton biomass. This increase can be attributed to the increase in orthophosphate, which is well known to trigger increases in chlorophyll-a in oligotrophic, phosphorus limited lakes, like Lake George. Although the cause of the orthophosphate increase cannot be identified, one possible cause is shifts in nutrient sources associated with human impacts.
Nutrients and pollution enter Lake George naturally via wind, rain and snow. They also enter the lake through erosion, sediment carried from the bed loads of streams, and decaying matter from twigs, leaves and plant debris. The natural weathering of rocks leaches phosphorus, among other minerals into the soil. Phosphorus is a vital nutrient necessary for plant and tree growth in forest areas, and large amounts of it are pulled from the soils and forest floor as the forest grows.
Developed land produces 15 times the amount of nutrient loading compared to natural forest areas.
The developed 8.2% (9,900 acres) of the Lake George watershed is loading as much phosphorus as the undeveloped 91.8% (111,100 acres).
The lake now receives triple its natural level of phosphorus.
Beyond natural sources, stormwater delivers excessive amounts of nutrients to the lake from roads, yards, driveways and houses, and other sources. Developed land produces 15 times the amount of nutrient loading compared to natural forest areas. The developed 8.2% (9,900 acres) of the Lake George watershed is loading as much phosphorus as the undeveloped 91.8% (111,100 acres). The lake now receives triple its natural level of phosphorus.
In recent decades, nutrient pollution, largely from nitrogen and phosphorus, has been one of the leading causes of Lake George water quality degradation. Although these nutrients do occur naturally throughout the environment, increased levels as a result of land use and other human activities are changing the lake.
Nutrient pollution from sources including fertilizer runoff, septic systems, and untreated stormwater runoff has resulted in algal blooms that can harm wildlife, alter near-shore areas and change Lake George’s water quality. Excessive nutrient levels support the prolific growth of aquatic plants and algae. When these plants die and are decomposed by bacteria, oxygen is consumed, resulting in lower levels of dissolved oxygen in the water. An area deprived of oxygen cannot support fish life.
Another major issue associated with stormwater runoff is that chloride levels in Lake George have more than tripled in the past 40 years.
The water quality of Lake George is more degraded at the south end of the lake than at the north end. This trend has been consistent for a long time and is a result of a greater amount of land use activities, which create higher volumes of stormwater resulting in higher loads of nutrients to the south end of the lake. Land use practices are not better at the north end of Lake George; it’s simply that acre-for-acre the land is less developed.
The decline in water quality that Lake George is experiencing is the result of our failure to adequately control stormwater runoff and nutrient loading. Poor land use decisions and management practices on the developed lands throughout the watershed are changing Lake George’s water quality.
Property Stewardship is Vital to the Environmental Health of Lake George
Lake George has provided many people with wonderful experiences and memories for over 150 years. Lake George is a unique and spectacular resource and deserves a high level of active, responsible property management by landowners.
As explained earlier, nutrients such as phosphorus naturally enter Lake George from the surrounding watershed. The heavy use of lawn fertilizers, inadequately managed septic systems, and stormwater runoff from roads, parking lots, lawns and buildings, and other impervious surfaces, has contributed to high, unhealthy levels of nutrient loading.
Do-It-Yourself Water Quality identifies important actions a landowner can take to improve property stewardship. Active management that mitigates or even prevents pollution and water quality degradation should be the goal of every property owner in the watershed. This publication enumerates the most important actions a landowner can undertake. Figure 5 shows there are many choices landowners make about how to manage their property. While there will always be impacts to the lake, the impacts can be minimized. Every landowner should be aware of the consequences and impacts to the lake from their management practices, including these important considerations:
> Development should follow the natural topography of the land: Careful siting of houses and roads is a must. It’s important that your development site is well designed so that stormwater can be treated onsite and impacts to Lake George can be minimized. Two-thirds of a property should be natural forest lands. For information, refer to the Plan Your Site Carefully page.
> Rain gardens are an excellent way to treat stormwater: Rain gardens are beautiful additions to any yard, but are also extremely effective for capturing and treating stormwater. For information, refer to the Build a Rain Garden page.
> Septic systems should be well designed and maintained: It’s important that your septic system is designed to handle the actual volumes for your home, located in the most suitable soils, and regularly maintained. For information, refer to the Carefully Site and Maintain Your Septic System page.
> Plant or expand a shoreline buffer: A fully vegetated shoreline buffer is one of the best ways to protect water quality. For more information about the importance of shoreline buffers for the protection of water quality, refer to the Create or Expand a Shoreline Buffer page.
> Plant or expand a stream buffer: Over 50% of the water in Lake George comes from streams. Stream health is vital to lake health. For more about the importance of creating or expanding stream buffers, refer to the Create or Expand a Stream Buffer page.
> Protect wetlands: These lakeshore wetlands provide many benefits to the lake. They should be protected and not dredged or filled. For information on the importance of wetlands for water quality protection, refer to Protect Wetlands page.
> Reduce the size of grass lawns: A large grass lawn limits your ability to manage stormwater. Use of large quantities of fertilizers and pesticides is often part of lawn care. For more information on the impacts from excessive lawns, refer to the Minimize the Size of Grass Lawns page.
> Stop using fertilizers and pesticides: One of the most harmful land management practices is the reliance on fertilizers and pesticides. These chemicals are washed from your lawn into the lake with every rainstorm where they cause algal blooms and are deadly to aquatic organisms and fish. For more information on the impacts from fertilizers and pesticides, refer to the Stop Using Fertilizers and Pesticides page.
> Landscape with native plants and prevent the spread of invasive species: Native species require no fertilizer or pesticides or watering to keep healthy. They thrive in the local habitat and are beautiful, providing many landscaping options. For more information on the benefits of native species, refer to the Grow Native Species, Stop Invasive Species page.
> Should your property be developed? Most of this publication provides information on how to mitigate the impacts of development to ensure a minimal impact on the water quality of Lake George. For landowners who desire to keep some or all of their lands as permanent open space, there are a variety of options available. For more information on land conservation options, refer to the Preservation Options for Landowners page.
Do-It-Yourself Water Quality helps every family or landowner make a difference in preserving Lake George. By improving the stewardship of private lands around Lake George, we will make a positive impact, perhaps the biggest one possible, in the effort to stop the decline of Lake George’s water quality, reverse recent trends, and help to create a healthier lake for future generations.