Should Lake George’s Deltas be Dredged?
Dave Wick, District Manager, Warren County Soil and Water Conservation District
When Kitty Rooney was a young girl in the late 1940s, her family bought property at the outlet of English Brook. On hot days, she would run 30 feet from her small cabin and jump into Lake George. That same cabin now stands more than 280 feet from the shoreline, but the house itself never moved. The land grew. Even worse, to get to water more than one foot deep, you need to walk out another 270 feet into the lake. Without the delta, that area would be more than 30 feet deep.
So how is it that in only 60 years time, the lakeshore has essentially moved 550 feet from where it was? The answer: the unprecedented growth of the English Brook delta due to vast amounts of sediment coming down the brook. But English Brook is not alone.
Lake George exhibits massive sediment deltas at the mouths of streams in most developed watersheds. At the outlet of Finkle Brook, lakeshore owners have docks exceeding 140 feet in length. On Hague Brook town beach, you need to walk out almost a football field’s length before reaching waist deep water. Conversely, streams with undeveloped watersheds around Lake George exhibit very minimal or no sediment deltas.
Are these enormous deltas in Lake George “natural” features of the lake, or has their growth been greatly accelerated by human-induced practices in the stream’s watershed? To be sure, streams do meander and erode over time, carrying sediment to their outlets. This is a normal process, and no one disputes that. However, the alarming growth of the deltas over the past 50 years cannot be attributed to natural stream activity. The construction of the Adirondack Northway in the 1960s, the washout of the Bolton landfill in 1996, the 28,000 tons of sand applied to our roads in wintertime each year in the Lake George watershed are but a few of the many documented human-induced causes of this issue. To those who have studied and worked on this issue for decades, the answer is abundantly clear. We have caused most of the problem and should be responsible for addressing it.
In fact, the debate on the cause of the growth of the deltas has been over for quite some time. There are dozens of reports on this issue, all of which culminated in the Environmental Impact Statement in 2003. This public document, titled “Lake George Deltas Sediment Management/Shoreline Restoration Project” took two years and over $100,000 to produce, and it is seen as the most thorough technical review of this important subject. The following is its introductory paragraph:
“Human activity in the Lake George watershed has significantly increased the quantity of sediments and suspended solids carried by the tributary brooks and engineered drainage structures and subsequently discharged to the Lake. Upland development, highway sand spreading activities, land clearing and logging and other human activities, in combination with inadequate erosion and sedimentation controls, have resulted in significant discharges of sediments and suspended solids to the tributary brooks and drainage structures, above natural “background” levels. In turn, these human-derived sediments and suspended solids have been discharged to the Lake, forming sediment deltas near the mouths of the tributary brooks and drainage structures…”
The facts are in, and the question resolved.
The follow-up question is why would we consider dredging? Quite simply, these deltas are significantly impacting both the ecology and recreational use of Lake George. The report outlines considerable boating safety hazards, greatly reduced or eliminated spawning habitats for fish (trout, smelt, salmon), inhibited boat docking for marinas, businesses and landowners, aesthetic declines, and proliferation of invasive species’ bedding areas (Eurasian milfoil and more recently Asian clam). These are uncontested facts, and the impacts are very real.
So what do we do? The first thing is to correct our upland problems and minimize the amount of sand and silt that reaches Lake George. Many partners already work together on a daily basis to do this. The Lake George Park Commission and local towns adopted stormwater runoff regulations for new development. The NYS Department of Transportation stopped using road sand in the winter. The Warren County Soil and Water Conservation District, Lake George Association, local towns and the NYS Departments of State and Environmental Conservation have put millions of dollars into stormwater management and stream restoration projects. All this has significantly reduced the amount of runoff, sediment and pollutants reaching Lake George over the past two decades.
But what of the existing deltas? Are sediment removal activities harmful to the lake? Dredging is actually nothing new on Lake George. In the 1970’s and ‘80’s, the Warren County Department of Public Works excavated the West Brook delta every few years to keep it away from the Steamboat docks. Prospect Mountain Brook delta has been cleaned out to keep the Shoreline Cruise and Village docks clear. Foster Brook delta in Washington County was very successfully excavated two years ago, and as a result, the smelt are running for the first time in more than 10 years. These projects are all done with permits, regulatory oversight, and with lake protections in place during excavation activities. These projects are not harmful to the lake; they are a benefit.
Looking ahead, many conservation agencies and organizations have been working with the surrounding towns on developing cost-effective ways to alleviate most of the impacts from the larger deltas in Lake George. The current proposal is to undertake excavation projects which will restore four feet of water depth at a few of the delta locations. In most cases, this represents removing only 10-20% of the actual volume of the deltas. This practical plan provides the best possible outcome for the least cost.
The three sediment removal projects currently proposed are Finkle Brook and Indian Brook in Bolton, and Hague Brook in Hague. These projects are receiving the highest level of examination from all regulatory agencies, including sediment analysis, fisheries impacts, work area containment, disposal of the sediments, and more. Currently, a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement is being prepared by the Lake George Association which will discuss even more options for how to safely and effectively remove these sediments from the lake.
We have a responsibility to the lake, its users, and ourselves. If we are to continue to enjoy this resource and protect it for future generations, we need to fix our past mistakes. The issue is right in front of us, and the choice is clear.
Peter Bauer, Executive Director, The FUND for Lake George
An application to dredge deltas in three streams around Lake George is currently under review by various agencies and will likely be approved soon. The proposal outlines a major $3 million project to dredge three deltas at the mouths of Finkle and Indian Brooks in Bolton and Hague Brook in Hague.
Are these beneficial projects? Yes, but not the best given limited resources. Will they help improve the water quality of Lake George? Marginally, at best. Does dredging the mouth of a stream fix the source of the problem? No. Are there other projects that could be undertaken for a similar price that would provide greater benefits to the lake? Absolutely.
This is a major decision for the Lake George community. The costs involved will eat up scarce resources for water quality projects for years. Right now, Lake George is experiencing ecological changes due to accelerated rates of nutrient loading delivered to the lake by stormwater. This is what drives Lake George’s slow, yet steady decline in water quality. Dredging deals with a symptom, not the actual problem.
The FUND for Lake George has seven major concerns with this proposal.
One, these projects are being funded as water quality enhancement projects. We see delta dredging as a commercial enhancement project or a recreational or even a fisheries project, but not a water quality project. The Department of Environmental Conservation classifies dredging as a recreational project. Dredging deltas will do nothing to stop the lake’s slow downward deterioration.
Here’s the science. Core samples taken from the deltas show that they are overwhelmingly made up of “coarse” sediment. But it’s the “fine” sediment that contains high levels of nutrients as these particles successfully bind with nutrients, whereas the “coarse” particles do not. The “fines” that are carried through stream channels are carried further out into the lake, while the “coarse” sediments are dropped in the deltas. Hence, delta removal provides only marginal, if any, water quality benefits whereas reducing the flow of sediment into the streams in the first place will help protect the lake.
We believe that water quality monies are better spent on building rain gardens, retrofitting local and state roads for roadside stormwater infiltration, building dry wells and swales, community stormwater planning, among many other projects. Such projects provide immediate and long-term benefits to the lake.
Two, dredging stream mouths does nothing to deal with the source of the problem. We think that all upstream sedimentation and stormwater sources should be identified and fixed before dredging the mouths of streams. Supporters are fond of saying that delta removal is like cleaning up an oil spill. To stay with this analogy we see dredging the delta as cleaning spilled oil on the ocean surface while ignoring the burst oil well at the ocean bottom that’s spewing oil. Without fixing upstream problems, the deltas will reform.
Three, the Town of Bolton is not really even in the game for trying to fix stormwater problems. The failure to control stormwater before reaching the streams and failure to maintain vegetated buffers along the streams compound the significant natural movement of sediment down the hillsides and into the lake. Despite overwhelming evidence of sedimentation in the lake from streams in its community, Bolton opposed enacting stream buffer regulations by the Lake George Park Commission. Bolton has even drafted a new zoning ordinance that equates the ecological value of a tree stump along a stream with that of a living tree (yes, that’s true). Local anecdotes talk about the large quantities of sediment in the delta that washed down from the local landfill and other failed municipal projects.
To really help the lake we need to control stormwater before it reaches these streams and repair stream corridors. The best method to stop sediment from reaching a stream is an intact vegetated stream buffer. Sadly, large stretches of all three streams proposed for dredging do not have protective corridors. Moreover, each of these streams has many points where stormwater flows in untreated.
Four, at one time it was policy around Lake George to first address all the upstream and upland problems in a stream watershed before undertaking delta dredging. We support the position of George Stafford, the Director of the Division of Coastal Resources at the Department of State, who stated in this newspaper that no dredging projects should be allowed until all upland issues have been addressed. Too bad nobody listens to George.
Five, we know better. Contrast the absence of stormwater control work in the Finkle Brook watershed with the list of successful projects in the West Brook watershed. Above West Brook there have been dozens of control projects in the Town and Village of Lake George, the NYS DOT completed major retrofits on the Northway and a major project to treat stormwater from the Route 9 corridor is underway as part of the West Brook Conservation Initiative. We applaud the stormwater control work completed in parts of Lake George Village. The Village has been the most proactive community around the lake, but it has a lot more work to do. West Brook has a large delta, but serious work has been undertaken upstream to fix real problems.
We see stormwater control work in the West Brook watershed as the model for delta removal. Fix problems upstream in a systematic way first. If dredging projects are undertaken without addressing upstream issues, the deltas will grow back.
Six, there has been no environmental review of the proposed mechanical dredging method of driving equipment into the lake. Studies from Lake Tahoe performed by UC Davis documented that mechanical dredging with excavators as currently proposed have the greatest potential for negative water quality impacts from suspended sediments, re-suspended nutrients, potential algal blooms, and other ecological impacts. The application being reviewed for Lake George would not even be accepted by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. There’s existing science on these impacts that’s not being examined.
Seven, we question whether delta dredging is the best investment given the limited resources to fund projects needed to protect the water quality of Lake George. The two biggest challenges that threaten the water quality and public enjoyment of Lake George are stormwater pollution and aquatic invasive species infestations. It’s too bad to see public funds for water quality going to a project that is not a water quality enhancement project.