Adirondack Council calls for widespread septic regulations

A new position paper from the Adirondack Council recommends that the local government watch out for faulty sewage treatment plants to prevent harmful algal blooms, as documented at Lake George’s Assembly Point last fall. Photo courtesy of the Lake George Association

By Ry Rivard

Local governments across Adirondack Park should urge homeowners to check their backyard sewer systems for leaks, environmental activists argue.

In a new position paper, the Adirondack Council argues that leaky septic systems are a growing threat to waterways around the park – not just at hot spots like Lake George, where septic pollution and regulation has long been studied and debated.

The paper appears to focus on trying to change minds in town halls and district officials, not just in Albany.

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“A comprehensive program will help keep sewage treatment plants functioning properly and protect Adirondack’s waters from the harmful algal blooms that are devastating waters across the state and other threats,” Council chairman William Janeway said in a press release.

Local governments around Lake George, for example, are now demanding sewage plant inspections faster than the state, which has been trying to get the issue under control for well over 30 years. One reason for this is that local governments can pass new mandates relatively quickly. State agencies like the Lake George Park Commission must go back and forth in Albany before enacting major new regulations.

David Miller, the Adirondack Council’s top water quality man, has worked with local governments to raise funds for clean water projects across the north of the country. In the new report for the council, Miller noted that too little is known about septic pollution outside of Lake George and that problems are noticed too late after there are obvious signs of pollution such as noxious algal blooms.

The council proposes a combination of education, regulation, and subsidies for homeowners to learn about and repair failing wastewater treatment plants.

“As soon as an HAB shows up, we are in catching up time,” said Miller, referring to the acronym for harmful algal blooms.

Cyanobacteria water sampleCyanobacteria from a harmful algal bloom were swimming in a sample of Lake George water last fall. Photo courtesy of the Lake George Association

Sewage treatment plants are widespread in rural areas of the country, including the Adirondacks. They’re really just one way to carefully sink sewage into the ground. The goal is to get the sewage out of a septic tank slowly enough for the soil near the house to remove the bad materials before anything dangerous gets into the lake. A broken sewage system will release too much raw sewage too quickly and overwhelm the cleaning power of the floor.

Untreated wastewater can carry waterborne pathogens that can make people sick. The bigger problem, however, is the chemicals in sewage that feed harmful algae, paralyze beaches, scare tourists off and threaten drinking water supplies.

Some local governments, like Queensbury, require homeowners to check their sewage treatment plants before selling their property. Miller said this would be a good first step for other local governments in the park.

He also argues that the state needs to allocate more money to help homeowners solve the problem. The state has invested millions in grants to help people modernize their septic tanks, but it’s unclear how much is needed and not all areas are eligible for money.

Last summer, the Lake George Fund and banks around Lake George developed a plan to offer homeowners special loans to upgrade their sewage treatment plants. So far, according to Miller’s report, “few homeowners” have drawn on the loans. This is because the state needs grant money.

The whole subject contains a number of tensions. Lakeside property owners can be quite wealthy, although others may own inherited family property that they cannot afford today. New treatment plants can cost $ 30,000. While few homeowners notice a leaky septic tank the same way they would notice a leaky roof, a leaky septic tank can cause more damage beyond the property line than a leaky roof ever could.

The mandatory inspection policy can also be tense, but that policy appears to be changing. For example, around Lake George, some local politicians and corporations are calling for septic tank regulations as needed to protect the lake.

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