ncient legends say that when a mermaid dies, her
soul rises from the depths to become foam, or
spindrift. On a chilly late October afternoon, I
stood among the souls of the watery departed
along Sawmill Bay on New York’s Lake George,
known across the country as the Queen of
American Lakes. The spindrift created a
foamy bracelet around the bay, and each
wave whispered gently as it arrived, perhaps bringing a message
of distress to those who would listen.
I grew up on Lake George, and my family and countless
other residents and visitors have long drawn water to drink
directly from the lake, classified as “AA-Special” by the state of
New York for the quality of its water.
Now, however, the future of the 32-mile-long lake, a gift
from the glaciers 10,000 years ago, is in question. Scientists
refer to Lake George as an oligotrophic lake. Such lakes have
low amounts of phosphorus, clear waters, and little to no algae
growth; eutrophic lakes contain high amounts of phosphorus,
with ever-increasing populations of algae. Studies show that
Lake George is slowly changing, and becoming more eutrophic.
Since the 1970s, Lake George’s famed water clarity has declined
by about six percent.
From winter road salt that washes into the Queen’s waters, to
pollutants like phosphorus, to the invasive species that have taken
up residence on her shores, the monarch is ailing. Many lakes
across the Adirondacks and New England face similar threats.
Road Salt: The Acid Rain of Our Time
To learn more about efforts to help Lake George, I ventured to
Sawmill Bay on the lake’s western shore to visit the Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute’s (RPI) Darrin Fresh Water Institute
(DFWI). The DFWI property is a patchwork quilt of old and
A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is the earth’s eye;
looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.
HENRY DAVID THOREAU
new. Buildings dating to the early 1900s, including a main lodge
that looks more like an Adirondack Great Camp than a laboratory, are interspersed with brand new labs such as the Jefferson
Project’s Data Visualization Lab, with its high-definition display
that lights up an entire wall and brings data from the project to
life in near-real time.
There I met Rick Relyea, an aquatic ecologist and director
of the project, a high-tech collaboration among DFWI, computer giant IBM, and the Fund for Lake George, an organization
dedicated to protecting the lake. “The idea is to use monitoring,
experimentation, modeling, and forecasting to inform decisionmakers in ways that lead to lasting protection of the lake’s water
quality,” said Relyea.
Beneath the surface, the Queen’s status may be slipping from
good to fair. Efforts like the Jefferson Project, which began in
2013, are underway to help reverse this trend. Lake George is
being monitored by sensors – some floating, some submerged
– that track vital signs such as water temperature and dissolved
oxygen and send the measurements back to shore. “The gauges
also keep tabs on salt content – among the most serious threats
to the lake,” said Relyea.
Scientist Jeff Short, a consultant to the Fund for Lake George,
added that “salt is the acid rain of our time.”
The Lake George region usually receives more than 70 inches
of snow each winter. During those months, some 9,000 tons of
road salt, or sodium chloride – an estimated 13 tons per lane
mile – are applied to snow- and ice-covered streets and high-
ways in the Lake George watershed. Where is all that salt going?
“Much of it drains into the lake,” said Short.
Salt levels in Lake George have tripled since 1980, scientists
revealed in the 2014 report The State of the Lake: Thirty Years of
Water Quality Monitoring on Lake George, New York, 1980–2009.
Short is a co-author of the report, jointly released by the DFWI
and the Fund for Lake George. “Allowing salt to continue rising,”
he stated, “risks irreversible changes in the lake’s ecosystem.”
Added Relyea, “Finding out how extensive the effects may be
requires doing the research to learn how the lake works and how
humans are affecting it. Through the Jefferson Project, we have
an opportunity to understand Lake George with a level of detail
that was previously unimaginable.”
For example, “circulation models are showing us how road
salt is transported and how it moves through the lake,” said
Harry Kolar, an engineer at IBM and the company’s lead
researcher on the project.
Road salt that runs off roads drains into streams that feed
Lake George, causing these tributary waters to become more
dense, the scientists have found. That has the potential to alter
patterns of water circulation.
Jefferson Project researchers plan to dot Lake George with