Adirondacks bouncing back from acid rain devastation

Acid rain has been one of the most serious environmental problems facing the Adirondacks for decades
Adirondack Lake Survey Corp. Field Program Supervisor Sue Capone and and an unidentified staff member obtain water samples from a canoe.
Adirondack Lake Survey Corp. Field Program Supervisor Sue Capone and and an unidentified staff member obtain water samples from a canoe.

In May 2013, Rick Beauchamp of Mayfield pulled a state record 6-pound brook trout from remote Silver Lake in Hamilton County.

What makes his catch more remarkable is that until a few years ago, Silver Lake was fishless as the result of damage done by acid rain.

Acid rain has been one of the most serious environmental problems facing the Adirondacks for decades, but recent research shows precipitation acidity is getting better, and many damaged lakes and ponds are recovering.

“The trend is very good,” said Karen Roy, a state Department of Environmental Conservation research scientist.

The damage already done is substantial, however — and it’s believed Adirondack forests harmed by the damaging rains will take much longer than lakes to recover.

The improvements in lake pH levels and their capacity to buffer acid reflects national trends, though the Adirondacks have been among the places hardest-hit by the phenomenon.

Of the roughly 2,800 ponds and lakes scattered across the Adirondack Mountains, hundreds for the past two decades were considered “dead” or impaired in terms of fish and amphibious life due to corrosive rain, snow and fog blowing in from power-plant emissions and other sources to the west.

The truly “dead” lakes may never recover, but some precipitation-damaged water bodies are seeing more fish and amphibian life than they once had, said Charles Driscoll Jr., a Syracuse University professor and leading acid rain researcher.

“Lakes that were fishless when measurements first started in the late 1980s are still fishless,” Driscoll said. “Those lakes that had a low number of fish and have seen significant improvement in water chemistry are starting to see more fish.”

The DEC has also successfully reintroduced fish into some lakes, like Silver Lake, which it had stopped stocking because of low pH levels, an indication of acidity.

The slide toward acidity in the region’s waters took place over many decades, since early in the Industrial Revolution, though it wasn’t widely recognized until the 1970s. The worst damage has been in the southern and western parts of the Adirondack Park; it is also generally most severe in smaller water bodies and at higher altitudes.

In the past 15 years, there have been results from the curbs put on the fossil-fuel emissions that cause acid rain.

The Adirondack Lake Survey Corp., which has nine full-time employees working from the DEC’s regional office in Ray Brook, samples 52 lakes on a monthly basis year-round, and takes cloud samples from an observatory on 4,865-foot Whiteface Mountain.

“Sulfate is consistently in decline. Nitrate is in decline in about half the lakes we monitor, but overall the trend is very good,” said Roy, the DEC scientist who works with the survey.

Driscoll said that while each lake is different, improvement in pH levels appears across the board.

“In the 1990s, we turned the corner on acidity, and since then there has been pretty constant improvement,” he said.

Computer models say the improvement should continue as long as the air pollutants that cause acid rain get no worse, he said. Reductions in the pollutants could speed the changes.

As expected, the return of fish and other aquatic life is happening a few years after the chemical recovery. In some cases, the DEC is stocking fish like brook trout again.

“We do know they’ve been successful in surviving in lakes the state had stopped stocking because of poor water chemistry,” Roy said.

Anecdotally, there are reports that an increase in fish is in turn supporting the re-emergence of fish-eating birds species like loons, whose trilling call is identified with the northern woods.

“It’s really exciting,” said William C. Janeway, executive director of The Adirondack Council, a conservation organization.

Janeway participated in an annual Adirondack loon survey organized by the Wildlife Conservation Society last Saturday, spying a pair of the elusive birds at a lake on private property in the central Adirondacks.

“Twenty or 30 years ago, if you saw a loon it was really exciting,” Janeway said. “Now they’re much more common in Adirondack lakes.”

The chemical and biological recovery is the product of a 40-year effort to identify what was killing lakes and forests in the East and then come up with solutions. Congressional amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990 put federal controls on power-plant emissions of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, the two main chemical compounds that cause acid rain.

Once in the atmosphere, nitrogen and sulfur react chemically with water vapor to create harmful acids, which then fall in rain and snow, often hundreds of miles away.

The worst emissions offenders historically have been coal-fired power plants in the Midwest. Prevailing wind patterns tend to push their emissions toward the Adirondacks — and the precipitation then falls most frequently in the south and west, where moist air first collides with the mountains.

“The Adirondacks were always very severely affected because we are the first high area as you are coming from the Midwest,” said Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, which also monitors water quality.

Not all the blame belongs to coal-burning utilities, though. Motor-vehicle emissions from gasoline- and diesel-burning cars and trucks are also a major source of acid rain chemicals.

Acid precipitation occurs throughout the Northeast, but when it falls in the Adirondacks, it’s dropping on some of the most fragile and sensitive natural environments in the East. The Adirondack Park, which covers 5.9 million acres between the Mohawk Valley and Canada, includes rare high-altitude natural environments. The soils are often thin over bedrock, meaning base elements in the soil have a limited natural ability to neutralize the acids.

Chemical reactions also make it easier for traces of potentially toxic metals like mercury and aluminum found in the rain to enter the natural food chain, showing up in fish.

On land, acid rain has damaged and killed tree species like red spruce and sugar maples, causing both aesthetic and economic problems. Sugar maples are important economically in the Adirondacks and northern New England because they produce a cash crop of sweet syrup each year and their coloring in the autumn is a prime tourist draw.

Individual maples can improve when the soil around them is treated with lime, Driscoll said, but a natural recovery of the soil will take many decades, researchers believe.

“The forest recovery is much more challenging due to the changes in soil chemistry,” Janeway said.

Acid rain damage aside, the Northeast’s alpine environments are under stress from the affects of climate change, which is warming the mountains’ atmosphere, and from the arrival of invasive species.

“It’s getting wetter and it’s getting warmer, and that affects the natural system,” Driscoll said. “The biology of 150 or 200 years ago will be different in the future because of climate change.”

The Adirondack Lakes Survey Corp. has been monitoring 52 lakes since the 1980s, in what is the most extensive monitoring effort in the Northeast. Managed by DEC, its work is also supported by the state Energy Research Development Authority and the U.S. EPA.

Protect the Adirondacks, meanwhile, has been conducting studies for the last 17 years, in conjunction with the Adirondack Watershed Institute of Paul Smiths College, looking and both pH levels and other lake chemistry.

Bauer agreed the news on lake recovery is good, but said waters outside the Forest Preserve — and therefore subject to development — still face many challenges. Construction of homes near lakes and ponds can lead to runoff that increases phosphorous and salt levels.

“There are still challenges from local land-use practices, and that’s stormwater runoff and road maintenance,” Bauer said.

The Adirondack Council, the Environmental Defense Fund and possibly other organizations are making plans for a one-day acid rain conference to be held Oct. 16 at a location that hasn’t yet been chosen. Janeway said the parties will discuss what’s been accomplished and what still needs to be done.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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