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ON THE SCENE: Saving Mirror Lake

March 29, 2019
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Mirror Lake is not dead, but it's on edge, so learned more than 60 members of the community on Wednesday, March 20 at a presentation by experts from the Ausable River Association held at Generations Restaurant overlooking the lake.

The problem is the lake is no longer turning over twice a year, which is a death knell for the lake and the fish within. The cause is our desire for snow-free roads year-round, a desire prompted by safety concerns for the 1980 Winter Olympics.

Before the late 1970s, roads were plowed and sand was put down to give cars traction. Then people knew they had to drive slower in the winter and often purchased chains for days when the snow was heavy or the roads a bit icy. An outcome of that approach was town and state highway crews and property owners having a lot of sand to sweep up in the spring. They by no means captured it all with a significant amount running into the streams impacting fish habitat.

Article Photos

From left are Liz Clarke, chair of the of the Ausable River Association, Brendan Wiltse and North Elba town Supervisor Roby Politi.
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Back then, when November hit, winter began with temperatures staying reasonably cold throughout the season interrupted by the "January thaw." For much of this past winter, it seemed that we've been getting a thaw a week followed by plunging temperatures and snow again to be followed by another thaw. As a consequence, this year's International Children's Winter Games and the Empire State Winter Games were nail biters from a weather standpoint, as were several other events, including most recently the Loppet cross-country ski race at Mount Van Hoevenberg.

They were no less nail biters for highway crews trying to keep the roads cleared, a situation that's not bound to get any better any time soon with the onset of climate change resulting in more severe temperature changes and more intense storms. Such conditions were not a concern for organizers of the Olympics. They were more interested in keeping the roads open and clear so athletes, officials, media and spectators could get to the events on time, many scheduled for primetime television.

Laying down salt was the answer, and the state Department of Transportation and general public quickly liked and got used to the results. The problem was that the salt began impacting the environment with the beautiful stand of beech trees that ran the length of the Cascade Lakes between the road and shore becoming the first obvious casualty; nearly all died.

Next, people started noticing that their cars were rusting out and the cost of maintaining a car went up as its lifespan shrunk. Initially, specialty businesses opened offering to spray coatings across the bottoms and inside car panels, which helped give the cars a couple more years of service. Car manufacturers heard the complaints and toughened up the car sealants, but salt corrosion remains a curse.

Another was that the chloride content of lakes and streams began to rise dramatically. People and villages situated along major highways saw their wells becoming polluted, which is where we are today. Mirror Lake's challenge is that it's long been ringed by buildings and roads, with the village center stretched along one side. Also, for years all street drains ringing the lake sent road runoff straight into the lake.

Mirror Lake is the town jewel. It's where people swim, fish and recreate. Events like Ironman are held here, and fireworks are let off over the lake. Unfortunately, all the salt, oils and other pollutants, including fertilizers from people's lawns along with bits of paper and gunpowder residue falling out of the sky every Fourth of July, are destroying the lake. The outcome is the lake, and the fish that live in it, are now knocking on death's door unless there is a concerted effort to protect it.

According to the Ausable River Association's scientist, Brendan Wiltse, the lead problem is salt. We lay down more than 200,000 tons on Adirondack Roadways each winter. The state DOT puts down about 55 percent of that salt, but three times per mile as local municipalities. Much of this salt ends up in lakes, rivers, streams and the aquifer; indeed, 77 percent of the lake surface area and 52 percent of the stream length within the park receives runoff from roads.

That runoff spells bad news for fish and other creatures living in or depending on that water, including we humans. Wiltse said that the Adirondack Watershed Institute at Paul Smith's College sampled more than 500 wells in the Adirondacks last year, finding that 55 percent of wells that are downslope of a state road exceed the EPA drinking water guidance values for sodium. In Keene, road salt polluted the town well, water requiring the hamlet to move its wells at no small cost. For many homeowners, it meant shifting to bottled water for drinking and cooking purposes.

"Mirror Lake is unique in that 27 percent of its watershed is developed land," said Wiltse. "With all that development comes sidewalks, parking lots and roads that receive salt to maintain them free of ice and snow in the winter. When that stuff does its job, it runs off into a stormwater system that discharges that runoff directly into the lake. We measure the concentrations regularly and at times found it to be 2,000 milligrams per liter or three times the acute toxicity for an aquatic lake, and 10,000 times higher than what we'd expect to be running into Mirror Lake from a stream."

While a certain amount of the salt-infused water is skimmed off heading downstream to pollute the AuSable River, a lot settles on the bottom of the lake, creating a heavy base water that's now preventing the lake from turning over twice annually, a bit like reducing the lake's ability to breathe by 50 percent. The outcome is a very narrow band of water wherein fish such as lake and rainbow trout can survive, reduced clarity and an increased chance for algae blooms to form.

North Elba town Supervisor Roby Politi said that town and village are not sitting idly by. They are investing in new smart plowing technology, have radically reduced their use of salt, and are urging the DOT to reduce its use of salt even more. Businesses like the Crowne Plaza resort made significant changes, such not using any salt on the Lake Placid Club roadways this past year. Vital that these efforts are, they are not enough.

"The town is very aware of the problem," said Politi. "We did buy a live plow, and we will buy another one. This past winter, we did not salt any of the straightaways on Mirror Lake but did put down a 7 percent salt-to-sand on the dangerous corners. Going forward, I'd love to see an old-fashioned winter and not put down any salt on the sidewalks. I'd like to put up a sign saying that this is a salt-free zone. I'd love to see the town and village not use any salt whatsoever. I was in Vail, and they use pebbles. I do think that there are alternatives for solving this important problem of saving this vital feature of our community."

"As Brendan said, we'd love to have a new conversation about how we beat back salt, how we saved the lake," said Kelley Tucker, executive director of the Ausable River Association. "We know that for a lot of people Mirror Lake is their heart and soul."

Ausable River Association officials urge everyone who loves Mirror Lake to join the effort to save it. They encourage supporting ongoing monitoring of the lake, upgrades to the Lake Placid-North Elba highway equipment, using as little salt as possible on their driveways, parking lots and sidewalks, putting pressure on the DOT and state representatives to radically reduce salt far further than they have, and accept driving a bit slower in winter.

Georgia Jones urged people to also consider joining the Ausable River Association and attending Mirror Lake Watershed Association meetings held the second Monday of every month at 5 p.m. at the village beach house on Parkside Drive.

"It's imperative to protect Mirror Lake," said former village Trustee Rik Cassidy. "I don't mind no salt. Let's try it, see what happens and go from there."

"It's a serious problem," said North Elba town Councilman Jay Rand. "We lose Mirror Lake, and we lose our community. I thought using pebbles was an excellent idea; they use them in Banff and all over Europe. They do a good job. They're a little expensive, but if you can recycle them that might be a good alternative."

 
 

 

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