February in the Adirondacks brings to mind images of winter carnivals and pageants of student royalty posed against frosted landscapes. Until recently it was also a season of restoration for lakes and ponds, locked beneath a thick paraffin of ice and snow.
This year, a late January thaw came close to spoiling some cherished traditions: Lake George’s Carnival had to move the outhouse races onshore, off the thinly frozen lake surface. Saranac Lake temperatures melted large holes in the block walls of its ice palace.
Unfortunately, such reports epitomize the climatic warming recorded across the region since 1976. More alarming, scientific models project temperature rises of up to 11 degrees F in the Lake Champlain watershed by the end of this century. At the top of that watershed, Lake Placid last year had a record season of open water; its ice cover broke up late last March and did not return until two months ago.
This trend poses serious, though predictable, consequences to lake ecology, and by extension to our fisheries, our tourist and recreation economies, and — for many communities — our drinking water supply.
Aquatic invasive organisms pose the principal hazard to New York’s lakes ponds and streams as annual ice coverage continues to recede. Invasives comprise a diversity of plant, animal and algal life that share at least one distinguishing characteristic: they are largely spread by human activity. Most invasive organisms find their way into new water in live-bait wells and on hulls or trailers of boats visiting from infested waters.
On Adirondack lakes these invasions have already begun and will multiply beyond control if we cannot muster serious defenses soon. Lake George is fighting five species, the most recent arrivals being Asian clam and spiny waterflea. Since 2009, Lake Placid has been working to control an outbreak of variable-leaf milfoil.
The expense of combating these organisms after they arrive is significant, and will grow with each new invasion. The only realistic hope for our waterways remains prevention. One of the most effective prevention programs is having a lake steward greet visiting boats at the water’s edge, inspecting the craft and engaging the boaters.
Passive strategies, such as literature posted at kiosks alongside boat launches, or voluntary boat wash stations, tend to reach boaters who are already alert to the problem — a low-risk target — while ignorance and indifference remain self-reinforcing among the rest.
One drawback to the stewardship approach as currently deployed is that institutions like Adirondack Watershed Institute of Paul Smith’s College, which provides lake stewards for communities across the park, draw from a labor force of college students who are available only during the summer season. While this covers the heaviest tourist traffic period, the summer months represent an ever smaller portion of the open water calendar (on Lake Placid last year, 40 percent).
Moving forward, the challenge confronting our communities will be how we can provide lake stewards during the broadening shoulder seasons, educating fishermen, builders and an expanding vacation fleet on avoiding the advance of invaders.
A new approach
On Lake Placid, private shore owners are teaming up with local schools, village and town offices, public agencies and civic and business groups to explore the concept of community lake stewardship. Our goal is to integrate stewardship into the high-school science curriculum with purposeful lake ecology projects. The program will also present steward service as a high-priority option for students’ community service requirements.
Experience like this will reinforce lessons on the unique values of their immediate environment. As a long-term goal, we hope to expand this force of student stewards to include volunteers from our seniors community and members of civic groups.
The outcome of this battle will ultimately be determined by the numbers. Students and community volunteers can only cover a finite number of hours, days, and boaters. The fate of our lake (and every lake) relies on other communities recognizing and confronting the problem, decreasing the overall volume of invasives currently moving between waterways.
Responsibility rests as well with regional businesses that supply traveling boaters and fishermen with coffee, ice and bait (Ahoy, Wilson Farms and Stewart’s shops!). They need to be included in local stewardship efforts.
In Albany, government leaders must get involved as well. Better integration of local science projects into statewide education curricula would be a good place to start.
As for the Lake Placid student stewards, the spirit of the educator’s paradox applies: If you really want to learn, teach. By mobilizing our kids, we will educate them and those they meet at the water’s edge in proper stewardship of our irreplaceable resources. In the process, perhaps we can learn a valuable lesson about community preservation.
Illustrator and cartoonist Mark Wilson of Saranac Lake is president of the Shore Owners’ Association of Lake Placid.