By James M. Odato
The trend is clear, researchers say: Rain falling over the Adirondacks is getting cleaner every year and today is nearly ideal.
Water bodies ravaged by acidic precipitation for years are springing back to life, and fish and wildlife are returning.
“It’s a national success story,” said Jed Dukett, a chemist who runs the Adirondack Lakes Survey Corporation, which has done long-term monitoring of waters in the Adirondacks. The group has performed the bulk of the sampling of acid rain and Adirondack lakes since 1992.
Data current to August 8, for example, show that Bear Pond, which was hit hard by acid rain and lost its ability to sustain trout, is healthy again.
“I saw loons there,” Dukett said about a recent outing.
The pond’s pH level had been dangerously low—5—during the heavy years of acid rain. Anything below 5.5 is not good for aquatic life. With the pollution emission controls required under federal environmental policies and a movement away from coal power, sulfur and nitrogen content in the clouds pouring over the Northeast are at the lowest in decades, state data show.
Tracking of Bear Pond in the St. Regis Canoe Area, for one, is an indicator.
The pond’s water has been moving toward a pH of 6 in recent years.
When Dukett checked on a hot summer day recently, the sample came back at 6.3. “The rainwater pH level is almost reaching natural or background levels,” he said.
Although it may take a while for total recovery, lakes likely to spring back quickest are those with the right features, such as Bear Pond, which gets some natural groundwater. Other Adirondack water bodies that should be showing big gains include Brook Trout Lake and Indian Lake, because of their thin-till drainage, Dukett said.
“Thin-till lakes got hit the hardest so they will be the first to show significant recovery,” he said. These lakes have mostly shallow deposits of glacial till, a natural buffer of acidic deposition.
Near the summit of Whiteface Mountain, managers with the University at Albany Atmospheric Science Research Center noted an Olympian jump in pH levels from the cloud precipitation tested over time.
Richard Brandt, who leads a cloud-water sampling team at the mountain, said the numbers are the best seen in years. He has plotted cloud pH measurements from 1994 to 2017 and the improvement is many orders of magnitude better, 3.9 to 4.9. That one point increase is a major climb, he said. “”It means its decreased 90 percent (in) acidity, which is pretty remarkable,” Brandt said.
Paul Casson, a technician who has been sampling at Whiteface since 1994, said federal requirements on smokestack emissions have been effective and he hopes the Environmental Protect Agency doesn’t take a step back on the Clean Air Act.
In Albany, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Barbara Underwood have publicly warned the Trump administration they will fight any rollbacks of the federal controls, although their concerns have focused on potential weakening of automobile emission standards.
And several environmental groups are worried about weakening federal commitment to policing Midwest power plants responsible for much of the acid rain and smog entering the Northeast. The Adirondack Council is among several groups that joined Maryland in suing the Environmental Protection Agency in 2017. The plaintiffs urged a federal judge to make the agency do its duty and force power plants in five states to obey the “good neighbor” provisions of the Clean Air Act and use emission controls.
In January, Underwood’s office joined the Connecticut attorney general in a suit similar to the Maryland complaint, seeking to get the EPA to honor the Clean Air Act and combat “interstate transport of air pollution from emission sources.”
The Clean Air Act, created in 1979 and amended in 1990 to help protect the ozone layer and to combat acid rain, has achieved cleaner air, experts say. “But the job is far from complete,” the EPA says on its web site.
However, the federal government has scaled back monitoring money. The New York Energy Research Authority has been funding the Adirondack monitoring, granting $495,000 annually in recent years. It has restructured the program as federal funds have been reduced, said Claudette Thornton, of the authority.
It is providing a total of $493,000 for the next four years combined now, extending the long-term monitoring but sampling lake water every other month instead of monthly.
A grant obtained this year by state Senator Betty Little will make
$250,000 available over two years to help pay for some additional lake research and may help the state Department of Environmental Conservation more effectively target its trout stocking and liming programs, Dukett said.
The positive trends seen from the field research will be discussed broadly at a conference planned this fall by the Adirondack Council, said John Sheehan, a spokesman. He said before the federal acid rain reduction program started, pH in rainfall over the Adirondacks averaged 4.1 and was as low as 2.6 during the 1970s. With the data showing the levels approaching acid-free precipitation, the council plans to discuss strategies to continue the recovery at its conference November 29 at the Saratoga Hilton, he said.
“There’s been considerable progress, but untainted rainfall has a pH of 5.5, so we’re getting there,” he said.
Also, from November 5 to November 9, the National Atmospheric Deposition Program will hold its fortieth anniversary conference at the Albany Hilton. The group has been measuring air and precipitation since 1978. Its agenda involves discussing “historical legacy” and the “future.”
Margaret Valis, the DEC’s director of the Bureau of Air Quality Analysis & Research, will be attending. She said the favorable trend of cleaner emissions coming into New York is reflected in the waters of the Adirondacks, but it will take 100 to 200 years for the lakes to return to their pre-industrial state. “The chemistry in the lakes do lag behind what we see in the emissions,” she said, noting the limited buffering capabilities of the North Country lakes.
Yet fish are coming back, she said.
Continued monitoring programs are essential, she said, and may include aspects of climate change such as testing lake water temperatures at various depths.
“The Adirondacks are really New York’s jewel,” she said. “It is important to make sure any of these trends are not reversed.”