Protecting a Legacy Through Low Impact Development
Located within a day’s drive of more than 75 million people, Lake George is exhibiting declines that are in large part results of stormwater pollution. Widely known as the “Queen of American Lakes” for its outstanding scenic beauty and natural character, Lake George is one of the cleanest, clearest large lakes in the world located in close proximity to major urban centers. The lake’s water quality is also among the best studied, as featured in a landmark report published in 2014 by The FUND for Lake George and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, The State of the Lake: Thirty Years of Water Quality Monitoring on Lake George. The scientific monograph presents a detailed review of water chemistry, examining “a long-term data set that can be used to assess environmental change within the lake on decadal time scales…[It is] one of the longest and most consistent sets of such measurements in North America.”
Prior to the water quality monitoring program that began in 1980, Lake George served as the reference “clean” lake for the National Science Foundation’s International Biological Program during the 1960s and ‘70s. The exceptional health of Lake George provided crucial context for studying the effects of pollution in lakes of similar size and latitude, around the country, and beyond.
Though under rising stress, the prevailing good health of Lake George can be attributed to the surrounding natural landscape. Forests and soils provide a ring of protection every rainfall, slowing, cleansing, and cooling the water before it reaches the lake. From streams to swales to wetlands to Lake George as a whole, the entire watershed benefits from this natural filtering process.
Yet, as documented in The State of the Lake, the ecological health and natural resilience of Lake George is at serious risk. The clearest trend is a relentless rise in salt concentrations, particularly acute in streams feeding the lake and almost entirely from road salt applied for winter de-icing. Referred to as the “acid rain of our time,” road salt threatens to degrade the health of forests and waterways on an ever-widening scale. Road salt runoff serves as a potent indicator of the negative effects of stormwater on Lake George, underscoring the need for responsive measures capable of curbing current trends and avoiding the risk of sustained and permanent degradation of water quality.
Lake George presents a microcosm of the problem and simultaneously an unparalleled view of its solution. The well-documented effects of stormwater runoff from developed landscapes can be coupled with detailed assessment of the local regulatory landscape. Few places offer the ingredients to produce a scalable model for solving stormwater runoff pollution in threatened watersheds everywhere.
Evaluating the status of current development controls at Lake George provided a critical first step in designing the LID Certification System. The findings paint a familiar picture that further demonstrates the value of Lake George as a vital test bed for both study and initiative.
Detailed evaluation of all nine municipalities within the Lake George watershed used the U.S. EPA’s Water Quality Scorecard to assess local ordinances for their ability to manage water quality (see accompanying box for scorecard details). As described by EPA, “the first-of-its-kind water quality scorecard (was) designed to help communities in rural, suburban and urban settings incorporate green infrastructure practices to protect local water quality and improve both the built and natural environment… [by helping] local governments identify opportunities to remove barriers and revise and create codes, ordinances, and incentives to better protect water quality.” The Scorecard focuses on five strategies and specific policies/tools for each. These include: 1) Protect Natural Resources (including trees) and Open Space; 2) Promote Efficient, Compact Development Patterns and Infill; 3) Design Complete, Smart Streets that Reduce Overall Imperviousness; 4) Encourage Efficient Provisions for Parking; and 5) Adopt Green Infrastructure Stormwater Management Provisions. A total of 257 points over the five categories of the Scorecard are possible.
At the present time, only six of the nine municipalities in the Lake George basin have complete zoning and planning ordinances, which in itself contributes to the seriousness of the problem. EPA Scorecard totals within the watershed ranged from a high of 110 points (out of a possible total of 257) to a low of 60 with an average of 82 or 33%. Reflective of the shortcomings of local ordinances around the country, these low scores can be attributed to insufficient provisions for: riparian buffer protection on streams; clearing limits on forested sites; consideration of density bonuses for infill development; allowing for varying widths on roads; fostering green infrastructure for roads, requiring landscaping in parking areas; preservation of trees; and encouraging off-site stormwater for re-developed areas. All of these are key features of Low Impact Development.
Within the Lake George basin (and around the country), low EPA Scorecard totals and mounting needs combine to form a widespread condition whose consequences grow more serious. As the number of watersheds facing stormwater problems increases, the need for effective initiatives becomes more urgent. Clearly missing, at Lake George and nationally, is a concerted course of action that rises to the level of the threat, providing a critical path to water quality protection. As detailed in Chapter 3, the LID Certification System™ fills this void and treats the present challenge as a clear opportunity.
Distinguishing LID Certification from other systems is its ability to harness private initiative in solving a growing public problem for nearly any type of development project. In so doing, LID Certification can augment the capacity of communities to perform essential services where ineffective or no local regulations exist. The resulting benefits include protection of natural resources and property values, along with reduced public infrastructure costs.
The need for decisive actions to protect Lake George and any waterway is particularly acute in the face of climate change. Lake surface temperatures have increased by 3.2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1980 and can be expected to rise. Strengthening the lake’s ecological resilience to climate change and other external stressors beyond our local control is a powerful incentive for actions on those issues where we can make a difference. Stormwater pollution is perhaps the most promising opportunity for demonstrating measurable results. Basin-wide application of Low Impact Development practices, promoted and rewarded through the LID Certification System, will ensure such results are achieved and, in the process, establish an adaptable, scalable model for any watershed.
Natural Features & Their Functions
• Stream, wetland, and shoreline buffers act as a natural filter for water bodies they surround. The native vegetation that forms buffers reduces flooding and erosion by stabilizing stream banks. Buffers work by slowing the movement of water over land, allowing sediments and pollutants to settle out, and supporting infiltration. Water that infiltrates is further filtered by soils, removing nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, and either enters the stream or water table, or is taken up by plants through their roots. Buffers also provide cooling of runoff from heated impervious surfaces, returning it to ambient temperatures before it enters the water body.
• Forests provide protective covering and shade for understory plants, soils and the animals below them. Trees intercept rainfall, help regulate the flow of water, perform evapotranspiration, and protect soils from the direct impact of rainfall.
• Soils are a living system that supports the growth of plants, animals, and microorganisms. Storing and moderating the cycles of nutrients and other elements, soils act as a sponge when it rains, absorbing small rainfalls. Along with vegetation, soils are also able to filter stormwater and are capable of degrading toxins found in stormwater runoff. Soils function as physical support, while maintaining a porous structure.