Thursday, December 2, 2021

‘Now or never’ to save Lake George

By David Cederstrom, Chronicle Staff Writer

Lake George “is still remarkably healthy, but certain trends that could change that dramatically, and permanently, are headed in the wrong direction,” Eric Siy, executive director of the Fund for Lake George, told The Chronicle.

“It really is now or never….That’s not hyperbole,” he said. “The trend lines tell us that. The lake tells us that.”

He insists, though, “I’m really optimistic, as long as we stay the course, and as long as we have the necessary funds to fuel our progress, and a sense of commitment.”

Mr. Siy cites a triple “complex of threats” — invasive species, rising salt levels and declining water quality and clarity — combining to “stretch the natural resilience of Lake George.”

With invasive species now being dealt with, Mr. Siy said “the clearest threat that needs to be addressed is salt,” resulting from its use on highways.

Eric Siy, executive director of the Fund for Lake George, in the non-profit environmental organization’s headquarters meeting room on Route 9 in Lake George.  Mr. Siy said images of Lake George, like the one on the left, were donated by Adirondack photographer Carl Heilman. The large flat-screen TV monitor on the right connects to a Jefferson Project station to “run the models that they’re developing for the physics, the chemistry of Lake George. It’s very educational, and it really puts eyes on the lake like we’ve never had before,” Mr. Siy said. Chronicle photo/David Cederstrom
Eric Siy, executive director of the Fund for Lake George, in the non-profit environmental organization’s headquarters meeting room on Route 9 in Lake George. Mr. Siy said images of Lake George, like the one on the left, were donated by Adirondack photographer Carl Heilman. The large flat-screen TV monitor on the right connects to a Jefferson Project station to “run the models that they’re developing for the physics, the chemistry of Lake George. It’s very educational, and it really puts eyes on the lake like we’ve never had before,” Mr. Siy said. Chronicle photo/David Cederstrom

He said Lake George salt levels have tripled in the last 30 years, and are 30 times higher than in pristine Adirondack lakes.

He said the mission of S.A.V.E. — the Stop Aquatic inVasives from Entering Lake George Partnership — has been broadened. “S.A.V.E.” also now stands for “Salt Abatement is Vital to the Ecology.”

S.A.V.E. was formed by municipalities and organizations around the lake, including the Lake George Association and the Fund for Lake George.

The Fund is organizing a “major summit” on salt for late September or early October, and its investment priorities for 2015 includes $210,000 for salt abatement.

Chris Navitsky, the FUND’s Lake George Waterkeeper, said five municipalities around Lake George have already signed a nonbinding memorandum of understanding (MOU) to work on reducing salt usage and others have indicated support of it.

Mr. Siy said salt not only imperils the lake’s use as drinking water, it causes more calcium to leach out of soils and enter the lake, making it more susceptible to invasive species that need calcium, like Asian clams, zebra mussels, and quagga mussels. “This is a real cause for concern,” Mr. Siy said.

As for water clarity, Mr. Siy said Lake George’s water clarity has declined by 6%, which he said might be especially significant because decreasing clarity could adversely affect native underwater Nitella plants, which he said contribute to keeping the water clear.

“One of the top priorities is assessing the health of those Nitella meadows,” which has not been done since the 1980s, he said. If they are in decline, “that should be a big wake-up call,” he added.

Asked to assign a rating from 1 to 10 for the Lake George’s health, Mr. Siy replied, “I think it’s very hard to easily assign a number. On some fronts it’s healthier than on other fronts. I think it’s more the threats that the lake faces than its current condition” that are of major concerns.

The Fund’s State of the Lake report summarizes “in strictly scientific terms” trends shown by 30-plus years of data collection by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Darrin Fresh Water Institute and the Fund.

Mr. Siy said, “Some of those trends, like the threefold increase in salt…are really serious threats. We know from the experience of other waterbodies, that have gone over the edge and reached a so-called ecological tipping point, where, once triggered, the health of the lake declines, and in fact can collapse rather quickly.”

“It’s not intended to scare people,” he insisted “It’s really to enlighten people. Knowing what we know about the science of Lake George, we have an extraordinary opportunity to take preventive actions.”

Mr. Siy says the Fund is “focused on creating a new dynamic that’s all about collaboration, it’s all about partnership, and it’s all about direct investment in the health of the lake — that no matter where you come from, whether you’re a landowner, a business owner, a conservation organization…the state of the lake, the health of the lake, is going to determine the value of your property, the success of your business. What you care about is directly tied to what we do to protect Lake George.”

He said, “It’s going to take investment, it’s going to take public and private dollars, real money applied to the real problems and the real opportunities.”

Mr. Siy said he aims to build consensus.

“I learned by doing, I learned the hard way,” in previous jobs, how “self-limiting” a conflict-based approach is. “I’ve also experienced first-hand the other approach. It’s so much more productive, and so much more sustainable….There’s a lot of power in people working together.”

The Pinnacle, seen behind The Sagamore, is now protected — The Lake George Land Conservancy  (LGLC) announced last Friday completion of a “5-year conservation effort” to protect the Bolton peak known as The Pinnacle. “The closing occurred on July 16...at which time LGLC purchased the 73-acre property for $525,000. LGLC then simultaneously sold the land, with a conservation easement, to the Town of Bolton. The Town donated the easement, and purchased the protected property from LGLC for $150,000. The Town will keep the property open to the public as a hiking resource, and LGLC will soon complete a management contract with the Town to maintain its trail system and look after the property.” The LGLC formed as an outgrowth of the Fund for Lake George.
The Pinnacle, seen behind The Sagamore, is now protected — The Lake George Land Conservancy (LGLC) announced last Friday completion of a “5-year conservation effort” to protect the Bolton peak known as The Pinnacle. “The closing occurred on July 16…at which time LGLC purchased the 73-acre property for $525,000. LGLC then simultaneously sold the land, with a conservation easement, to the Town of Bolton. The Town donated the easement, and purchased the protected property from LGLC for $150,000. The Town will keep the property open to the public as a hiking resource, and LGLC will soon complete a management contract with the Town to maintain its trail system and look after the property.” The LGLC formed as an outgrowth of the Fund for Lake George.

Asked to compare the Fund for Lake George to other Lake George environmental groups, Mr. Siy said the Lake George Association is a membership-based, networking and education-based lake association. “It has a distinct role to play. I think the education function it serves is vital.”

He said the Lake George Land Conservancy, which the Fund originated, has as its mission open space protection.

Mr. Siy describes the Fund as “a science-based advocacy organization. We have a Waterkeeper. We do a lot of project review. We’ve been long-term investors in the science of the lake for the express purpose of informing protection. We’re a catalyst for change,” and fund many initiatives.

He said the Fund is not a membership organization. It has a board of directors and five paid staff. Mr. Siy said partnerships and collaborations enable them to get a lot done with a small staff.

The Fund’s operating budget is about $1.6-million this year, he said, up from just under $1.4-million in 2013 (the most recent annual report available). Its income is from grants and private donations.

A big chunk of this year’s budget goes to the Jefferson Project, an internationally significant, high-tech scientific study of Lake George, started in 2013 through a partnership of RPI’s Darrin Fresh Water Institute, IBM, and the Fund.

Mr. Siy said it’s too early for any results with practical applications, but the Jefferson Project will “absolutely” provide them in the future and “give us a whole new level of deep understanding” of the lake.

Mr. Siy said the boat inspection program combating invasive species, now in the second year of a two-year trial, “has proved its worth [and] is widely accepted,” and serves as a model for the regional program now being instituted in the Adirondacks.

S.A.V.E. “is determined to do everything possible to make it a permanent program. We have every reason to believe that the program at Lake George will be made permanent,” he said.

Mr. Siy said invasive species such as hydrilla and quagga mussels present in relatively nearby waters could quickly and permanently “break the back of water quality” in Lake George if they were to get in.

Fund’s $1.87-million in 2015 spending priorities

Mr. Siy said that “based on the science,” the Fund developed a “Legacy Strategy” to stop declining trends and achieve sustained protection of Lake George.

He said fundraising is going well toward their 2015 list totaling $1.87-million of “investment priorities”:

  • $322,000 for invasive species prevention and treatment/eradication, including: $106,000 for the S.A.V.E. Lake George Partnership; $50,000 for the S.A.V.E. Adirondack Waters Partnership; and $166,000 for the current push to control invasive Eurasian milfoil in Lake George down to “low maintenance levels.”
  • $210,000 for salt reduction, including: $190,000 to institute improved road de-icing programs, adhering to the non-binding “Salt Reduction Memorandum of Understanding” among municipalities; $175,000 in grants ($25,000 each) for municipalities to upgrade their de-icing systems; $15,000 for a series of talks on salt throughout the Lake George basin; and $20,000 to organize and host “SALT: Halting the Acid Rain of Our Time,” a summit of leading salt reduction researchers and practitioners planned for this fall.
  • $783,000 in support of various aspects of the Jefferson Project.
  • $559,000 for water quality and clarity protection: $220,000 toward “point source” problems such as stormwater and wastewater; $214,000 for the “Low Impact Development” (LID) certification program being launched by the Fund and its Waterkeeper (see the May 21 issue of The Chronicle); and $125,000 in grants for protecting “key upland properties” and to establish an Adirondack-wide Waterkeeper affiliates network.
  • LID — the Low Impact Development certification program — is meant to provide “a more ‘carrot’ approach than a ‘stick’ approach,” Mr. Siy said.

    He says some regulation is necessary, but “I’m a big believer in the carrot” that gives people a reason to work together toward a common goal. He said municipalities could apply the carrot approach through such things as a tax break or faster approvals for LID certified projects.

    “Stream corridors are critical to what flows into Lake George,” and the LID approach would help protect those corridors without more regulations, said Mr. Siy.

    On the Fund’s role in fight over Kitchens’ Assembly Point house

    When Steven and Jennifer Kitchen proposed to build a house at Assembly Point in Queensbury on the east side of Lake George, the Fund for Lake George got involved in the effort to thwart it.

    The Kitchens this year finally won a long legal battle, which was the subject of many Chronicle articles and letters to the editor.

    Asked about the issue now, Fund executive director Eric Siy said, “That’s like over a year old as far as our involvement. We moved on from it. We had stated our case early on [through the Fund’s Waterkeeper Mr. Navitsky]. We didn’t see the advantage, or the benefit of participating in that pursuit beyond where we had taken it initially — stating our concerns.”

    But the Fund’s role went beyond stating concerns. After the project won local approvals, the Fund joined other foes and sued to try to overturn the approvals.

    In an additional follow-up with Mr. Siy, The Chronicle pursued the issue.

    Mr. Siy responded, “We did not take the lead” in the lawsuit and did not join in the appeals that took the case to the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court.

    Asked whether, in hindsight, the Fund should have been part of the lawsuit, Mr. Siy said, “I know that there are certain concerns when it comes to protection of water quality, and the potential risks, where this type of action is warranted, but in this particular case” he’s not the person to ask “mainly because I was not there from the start.”

    He called lawsuits “an action of last resort. Our focus and priority is on working with landowners, working with communities to accommodate development needs and do it in a way that protects the lake. The fact is, we can do both, and that is our clear preference in almost every instance….I think there are multiple pathways to a satisfactory resolution that don’t require legal action.”

    Mr. Siy said, “We’ve got bigger fish to focus on. We have a whole strategy now that is unfolding, and that’s where our focus is.”

    The Kitchens’ property borders property owned by Albany Times-Union publisher George Hearst III, a board member of the Fund for Lake George. Mr. Hearst was a party to the lawsuit all the way through.

    Mr. Siy said that Mr. Hearst, as an individual and property owner, has the right to do what he feels he needs to, “that’s his prerogative.”

    Mr. Siy, asked about some people’s view that the Kitchens case involved rich people living on the lake trying to keep others from doing the same, Mr. Siy said that this argument generally has been made for a long time, but “we’re focused on the future, not the past.” — David Cederstrom

    Backs Marriott & LG Village year-round push

    Asked his opinion of the six-story Marriott Hotel under construction on Canada Street in Lake George, Eric Siy said: “Personally, I think it’s a really good thing, if it’s done right,” he said. “Revitalizing the village with a new generation of accommodations is a very good thing, but it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t overtax the infrastructure.” He said the same applies to efforts to give the village more of a year-round economy.

    The more done to ensure that the cultural and economic aspects complement the environmental aspects of Lake George, the better, Mr. Siy said. He noted that the Fund is helping with the village’s wastewater treatment plant upgrade. — David Cederstrom

    Copyright © 2015 Lone Oak Publishing Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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