High-tech analysis of Lake George’s problems

Longtime residents of Lake George know the water isn’t as clear as it used to be.
A fisherman is seen Thursday, June 25, 2015, on Lake George.
A fisherman is seen Thursday, June 25, 2015, on Lake George.

Longtime residents of Lake George know the water isn’t as clear as it used to be.

Previous studies have shown that salt levels have tripled over the last 30 years, and you’d need to have been holed up in a fallout shelter for the last decade not to know there’s a problem with milfoil, Asian clams and other invasive species.

Scientists and researchers are trying to understand what’s going on with the vast lake, using deep-water sensors to delve into the physical character of the popular Adirondack site in ways that have never been done before.

Entering its third year, the Jefferson Project at Lake George has in recent months placed more than a dozen high-tech sensors in the lake or its tributaries, and they’re measuring temperature, salinity, chemistry and other data. Eventually, there will be 40 sensors profiling the lake.

“They’re starting to send back huge amounts of data, and more will be deployed,” said Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor Richard Relyea, director of the Jefferson Project.

The project — a multimillion-dollar combined effort by RPI researchers, IBM scientists and engineers, and the Fund for Lake George — held an open house Thursday at the Darrin Fresh Water Institute in Bolton Landing, where it is based.

Dozens of people filed through the complex as researchers explained colorful bathymetric maps, the lake’s food web and the “hot spots” where salt is entering the lake, which is at the heart of a $1 billion regional tourism economy.

“We’re understanding Lake George like never before,” said Eric Siy, executive director of the Fund for Lake George. “This is empowered and empowering information.”

The problems found at Lake George are common, and project leaders believe the research knowledge will be useful at other lakes, too.

“You have a lot changing at the same time, and we want to know what the factors are,” Relyea said. “With this data, you can design experiments to look at future changes, like what if saline levels triple again?”

The research is scheduled to last three years, but the partners have agreed to keep working together for at least a decade. “It’s a huge lake, a deep lake, and there’s a lot to learn,” Relyea said.

The threat of rising salt levels in the lake is already very much on the minds of regional officials, who have begun to seek a coordinated approach, much as they have with efforts to keep more invasives out of the lake.

New Jefferson Project maps are already showing the places where salt — primarily from winter road treatments — is entering the lake, mostly around the more-populated southern basin.

Other maps are showing the primary storm runoff points around the lake and how water circulates within the lake, where the water on average remains for seven years before running down the LaChute River to Lake Champlain.

“We have a set of models that feed each other,” said IBM research engineer Harry Kolar. “We are looking for a picture of the whole lake ecology.”

The next step on the salt front will be developing ways to keep roads clear in the winter that use less salt, Siy said. Such techniques as applying a brine solution before a storm hits to reduce the amount of salt needed later have been used effectively in other places.

“You can’t put the lake on a low-salt diet and have an increase in accidents,” Siy said. “That won’t fly.”

Relyea said Jefferson Project scientists and researchers don’t plan to recommend any solutions to whatever problems they find, saying that’s practicing good science.

“We have no agenda. We are agnostic to what we find,” he said. “It’s up to the community what to do about it.”

For young researchers, the Jefferson Project is a chance to work with advanced technology so sophisticated it’s exciting — sensors that pick up all sorts of data and feed it into IBM computers, and that will be able to communicate with other sensors in real time when, let’s say, a thunderstorm is hitting the lake. The sensors are winched up and down automatically, so the bottom, middle and top of the lake can be compared.

“It’s pretty amazing technology,” researcher Eli Dow said. “You don’t see it, but there’s this whole amazing chemical and biological world down there.”

Lynn Wilson of Pilot Knob, a fourth-generation lake resident who attended the open house, said she’s noticed the decline in water clarity over the decades — and she hopes the high-profile research effort will help raise public awareness.

“I see people whose behavior is making the lake worse,” she said while attending the open house. “There needs to be more education.”

A mathematician, Wilson said she was fascinated by the mathematical models researchers are using. “Hopefully they will have good practical implications for research,” she said.

The effort is known as the Jefferson Project for Thomas Jefferson’s famous description of Lake George as “the most beautiful waters he ever saw.”

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