Dr. Jim Sutherland: “The Father of Lake George Hydrology” Teams with The FUND & Waterkeeper for Enduring Lake Protection

The following profile was prepared by The FUND for Lake George prior to its 2021 merger with the LGA.

Sept. 2020

Jim Sutherland, Ph.D., was trying hard to concentrate on the work in front of him at the New York State Department of Health that day in early 1980, but Lake George kept calling his name.

“There were two fellas outside in the hallway and I overheard them talking about the Lake and the research they were doing there, and I couldn’t mind my own business,” he says now, with a chuckle. Jim had been working at DOH for six months or so, after earning his doctorate from the State University of New York at Albany. But a decade earlier he’d done graduate work at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s then-freshwater research facility on Gull Bay, and he’d missed being around the Lake ever since. So, he wandered into the hallway and struck up a conversation.

Thus began a 25-year career as a water quality research scientist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, during which Jim became perhaps the foremost expert on the hydrology of Lake George. Among his signature achievements at DEC, Jim conducted highly regarded research into the impacts of Eurasian watermilfoil on the Lake, and co-authored the definitive study on the impacts of stormwater runoff from roads and other developed areas into streams and, ultimately, the Lake itself. The Lake George study was one of a select 28 research projects conducted around the country in the late 1970s and early 1980s as part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Urban Runoff Program, the nation’s first comprehensive analysis of stormwater pollution. The findings of these studies led to significant improvements in the federal Clean Water Act.

Dr. Jim Sutherland, water quality research scientist with New York State

“That’s still my love,” Jim says, referring to stormwater analysis and solutions. “There really had not been a lot of focus on the streams that run into Lake George up until that time. But there are about 140 different tributaries of varying sizes that run into the Lake, and generally what comes in through those streams is what makes or breaks the water quality of Lake George.”

“We all need to respect the Lake and its water quality if we want to protect it for generations to come. We have to advocate for the Lake as individuals. That’s a responsibility everyone has to be aware of.”

— Jim Sutherland

After retiring from DEC in 2005, Jim and his wife, Anne, moved to Nantucket Island for eight years before the lure of the Lake drew them back. Almost immediately, he was recruited by Lake George Waterkeeper Chris Navitsky — who has dubbed Jim “The Father of Lake George Hydrology” — to become a water quality consultant for The FUND for Lake George. (The Waterkeeper is a program of The FUND.) While at DEC, many of the studies Jim conducted had been co-funded by The FUND.

“I was thrilled,” Jim says. “I’ve always been a big fan of The FUND. Our goals have always been the same: to do whatever we can to protect the Lake.”

Over the past seven years, Chris and Jim have become the “Dynamic Duo” of water quality research and protection. They have collaborated on studies that documented the need for — and helped develop solutions for — improved wastewater treatment in the Village of Lake George and Town of Bolton, as well as stormwater management, reductions in road salt use and improvements in private septic systems throughout the Lake’s basin. Together, they have logged countless miles on foot, trekking to and through streams on a weekly basis, in all sorts of weather, to collect the samples so critical to long-term Lake protection.

“Lake George is maybe the most important water resource we have in New York State,” Jim says. “The diversity of the basin, the forested areas, the water quality. It’s unmatched by anything else I’m aware of in the country.”

And while he notes that the water quality has diminished slightly in recent decades due to the sheer popularity and use of the Lake and its surrounding watershed lands, he’s confident the research and protection programs in place today are capable of maintaining and even improving that quality going forward.

Jim says he’s particularly excited that the research done by The Waterkeeper is now being paired with the vast data being collected about the Lake by The Jefferson Project, the groundbreaking collaboration between The FUND, IBM and RPI. “The combination of those two programs keeps us in contact with the pulse of the Lake and allows us to identify and focus on the most significant problems.”

Jim also encourages residents of the Lake’s watershed and its many visitors to be vigilant about protection. “We all need to respect the Lake and its water quality if we want to protect it for generations to come,” he says. “We have to advocate for the Lake as individuals. That’s a responsibility everyone has to be aware of.”

Now 78, Jim recently gave up the often-exhausting field sampling portion of his work, but he’s far from retired. He continues to apply his analytical talents and deep knowledge of the Lake to The FUND’s science-guided protection programs, and says he can envision himself working another 10 years … before joking that he hopes Anne isn’t listening.

“If I could go for another 50 years, I would,” he says, with a hitch in his voice. “I love what I do. I’ve dedicated my scientific career to doing what I could to advance the water quality of Lake George. It’s in my blood. What else can I say? It’s part of me.”