Lake George in the Southern Adirondacks, known for its crystal clear water, has been a summer destination for more than a century. But during 2017, the state-owned beach “Million Dollar Beach” was closed several times from June to August due to bacterial contamination. A team of local officials and advocates came together to solve the mystery of the pollution.
WAMC's Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard brings us this installment our series on infrastructure from the southern shore of Lake George.
Here along the southern basin, Lake George stretches for miles north. Surrounded by mountains on either side, it’s a jewel of the Adirondacks that many deem worth of protecting. People flock here for boating, hiking, fishing, gaudy summer tourist shops, and historic sites.
State and local governments have invested millions to combat invasive species, wastewater, and even road salt.
But this summer, the New York State’s Million Dollar Beach, normally packed with bathers, was quiet on several weekends. That’s because high levels of coliform bacteria, E. coli, were frequently detected there.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, E. coli is found in the digestive systems of warm-blooded animals and if ingested can cause diarrhea and other illnesses in humans.
One person continuing to investigate the issue is Lake George Waterkeeper Chris Navitsky.
The coliform bacteria has been, has shown occasionally around the lake at the public beaches and areas but nothing persistent like it has been at Million Dollar Beach for a long period of time,” said Navitsky. “Sometimes you would have spikes and those tend to be related towards water fowl, ducks, geese, but nothing over a prolonged period of time that has been repeatedly returned as it has at Million Dollar Beach.
On a chilly October morning, I ride along with Navitsky to the beach. He says we’re going to look at a small stream that surfaces between homes on the southeast side of the lake.
“This tributary has been studied back into the 1980s and there was always high levels of nutrients in this stream,” said Navitsky.
Stepping out of his car, Navitsky heads into the ditch.
“The stream is really the surfacing of the groundwater so as this groundwater surfaces it brings whatever is in the soils it brings whatever is in this area into this tributary.”
He leans over and examines the stream. Navitsky pulls up a rock matted with green algae.
You can see this benthic algae that is kinda matted and this is what we were testing with our algae to see if this was telling us anything and it was,” Navitsky said. “It was telling us that there was indicators of organic pollution, of cyano bacteria, the blue green algae. That so that leads us to believe that there are organic pollution sources up in this watershed.
And that nutrient-rich water flows from that small stream underground and into a creek nicknamed Snug Harbor, which heads right into the lake in an outlet directly next to the state beach.
“We know how important that beach is for the local community but we also know how important it is to maintain the safety for the public and the reputation of this lake as a pristine water,” said Stegemann.
Bob Stegemann is Regional Director for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the agency responsible for maintaining the beach.
Stegemann says high levels of coliform bacteria were first discovered in 2016 and investigated.
“We first discovered this the year before and as the season entered we continued testing we discovered that the issue was continuing,” said Stegemann.
On Friday, June 9th, 2017, DEC announced it was delaying the opening of the beach to swimming due to above-acceptable levels of E. coli bacteria.
It blamed the issue on a “prior rain event.” The start of the swimming season, the next Saturday, was delayed. DEC also said it would begin investigating the issue.
Swimmers were back by the following weekend, but by June 21st, the beach was closed again.
The closures stumped local officials. Village of Lake George Mayor Bob Blais said when the Million Dollar Beach was having problems, the village beaches had no problems with water quality.
“The state beach is our signature beach. The state beach is really the beach that everybody relates to. During the whole closure of the state beach on various occasions, we were testing our beaches every single day and getting terrific readings. So it was a mystery,” said Blais.
So to solve the mystery, a dream team of local officials, environmentalists, and advocates came together.
“Everyone was all hands on board. The state came in, the town, the village forces, the Waterkeeper, the Lake George Association, we all got together and we had several meetings and we said we've got to not only find out where this problem is coming from but we've got to correct it and we've got to correct it fast,” said Blais.
Town of Lake George supervisor Dennis Dickinson was also at the meetings. He said a dozen people were in the room representing a host of governments and organizations, including the state.
“So we had some pretty serious brainpower there, let alone manpower. And it was a good thing. And we went through a lot.”
So the team got to brainstorming.
Mayor Blais said the village sewer system had recently been slip-lined, ruling out leaky pipes on one side of the lake.
One theory was the stretch of sand beside the Million Dollar Beach nicknamed the dog beach.
Mayor Blais says the dog beach is popular with visitors who cannot bring pets or alcohol to Million Dollar Beach, or who do not want to pay the $10 parking fee across from the state beach.
“There are no restrooms available at the dog beach, and therein lies one of the major problems. When we were assisting the state cleaning up the dog beach, we found dirty diapers in the sand, we found dog feces in the sand, we found a lot of things that are really disturbing,” said Blais.
While waste from beach-goers may have been an issue, Supervisor Dickinson believed there had to be another reason why coliform bacteria was entering the lake.
He said the state beach where all the poor samples came from is surrounded by the Town of Lake George – Caldwell Sewer District.
“So when they were having bad readings it was evident it was either the state facility or it was some kind of problem in the Caldwell sewer district,” said Dickinson.
So an investigation began into the Caldwell sewer district that connects homes and businesses on the east side of the lake, uphill from the Million Dollar Beach.
The village provided equipment to assist the town and the state in the investigation.
A robotic camera was sent up through sewer lines. Pipes were injected with smoke, filled with dye: strategies to help pinpoint where there may be a leak or a bad connection.
DEC’s Bob Stegemann said several lateral connections to homes were found to be compromised, and those were repaired. The work continued.
“We cleaned out stormwater catch basins that ultimately discharged near the beach and the inspection of holding tanks and sewer pumping systems for the touring boat operators in the area near the beach, we made sure they were operating,” said Stegemann.
Workers pulled up close to 100 manholes owned by the town, Warren County, and the state.
Dickinson said they were getting closer when they discovered two state owned manholes that had been covered with grass and soil over the years. One, located on Cedar Lane, was clogged with debris.
The manhole filled up with material and we couldn't get the camera into it and so we pulled the cover on it and the stench was unbelievable. Unbelievable. This thing hadn't been maintained in years.
DEC says the stormwater system was confirmed to have high levels of bacteria, likely due to the buildup of debris and sediment over time.
But there was still the question of how E. coli bacteria, which comes from warm-bodied animals, was being introduced into the stormwater system.
As the search continued, another possible culprit was discovered. A broken sewer main just a few blocks away from the beach.
Dickinson is convinced this was the source of the problem.
“It's a 10- inch main that goes to the East Side, it's a major sewer line. It carries a million gallons a month. A month.”
Here’s how it happened. A few years ago, Warren County resurfaced Beach Road, which goes along the southern basin of the lake and Million Dollar Beach.
National Grid was seeking permission to run a gas line to a bar on Beach Road. When the county denied the utility permission to dig up the road to put in the new service line, the utility instead jacked the line under the road. That was done in September of 2016.
In that process, the gas line was run through the middle of the 10-inch sewer main. Dickinson thinks that was the smoking gun.
“I mean we spent $25,000 looking at everything you could imagine. Absolutely everything and didn’t find anything. Then we find this, this is unbelievable. This was a real anomaly. I mean, they drilled a gas line right through our 10-inch sewer line. It’s a major line.”
Dickinson’s theory is the sewage exited the breached pipe, into the stormwater system, down Beach Road, into the manhole, down the storm culvert, exiting into Snug Harbor, and flowing into the lake, less than a hundred feet from Million Dollar Beach.
Dickinson also maintains, however, that the lake and its water are completely unsecured, and that there are a number of unknown factors that can lead to water quality anomalies at any time.
National Grid released a statement on the sewage line in July.
The company said:
“When this was brought to our attention last week (early July 2017), we moved the service away from the sewage line and repairs were made. There was no evidence of leakage at the spot, and readings of contamination of the water directly at the end of Beach Road read “0” for contamination and continue to read so at that spot.”
Stegemann said the contamination was a culmination of many factors, and that DEC did not determine the extent of how much the sewer line break contributed to the pollution problem.
Looking at the data, Waterkeeper Chris Navitsky said after the pipe was repaired, soon after the break was discovered, bacteria levels dropped.
“And what we've done is actually graphed that and since that pipe was repaired back in the beginning of July, you can actually see that there is a downward trend in the levels of E. coli that have been found,” said Navitsky.
According to Navitsky’s data, there were spikes after rain events, possibly due to bacteria still in the ground, being brought to the surface water. So is that it?
“It's hard to say. It's a complex issue,” said Navitsky. “This was a key component but there needs to be more. Whether that is some type of monitoring in the soils, some wells that can be drilled to test groundwater to see where that's surfacing, because again there's not concern that culvert and that stream on the east side of the beach, which appears to be the origin of a lot of this problem.”
Another conservation group, the Lake George Association, assisted the state in its investigation.
LGA Executive Director Walt Lender says though the data showed a reduction in the coliform bacteria levels, it may not be the end of it entering the lake.
We've removed many of the sources but there still some things out there that must be contributing to this problem. So over the winter we will work with DEC, we will work with the town and village and get to the bottom of this before the beach opens in the spring,” said Lender.
DEC’s Bob Stegemann says he’s confident that 2018 will not see the same problems.
“I do think, however, that it's not certain. It does demand due diligence to…monitor and continue to investigate the sources because it's so diffuse. There's not one single source. So we're going to work with our partners to do that.”
Lender believes the lake remains one of the cleanest, most pristine water bodies in North America, if not the world. And he’d like to see it remain that way.
“It's a drinking water source for many of the people around the lake as well as the communities around the lake. It's a source for recreation and tourism for hundreds of thousands of people every year. It's the basis of a huge regional tourism economy. And it’s also just a really beautiful, beautiful lake which is very clear and is recognized by all the people who come here as one of the most beautiful places on earth,” said Lender.