Murky Waters

Piseco Lake in Hamilton County, New York. Credit: Jamie Parslow/AWI

Earlier this winter, Paul Smith College’s Adirondack Watershed Institute (AWI) published a report on water quality for 21 lakes in Hamilton County. The county occupies the lower, central portion of the park, and even by Adirondacks measures it’s remote – according to recent census numbers, its permanent residents number just shy of 4,500, making Hamilton the least populous county in New York.
 
So it’s surprising to see, in the AWI report, that 17 county lakes have had significant declines in water transparency over the past quarter century. In other words, there’s more dissolved gunk floating around in them, blocking out light. Water clarity is often seen as shorthand for water health, so isn’t this “browning” a worrying sign?   
 
The scientific answer (as with so many scientific answers) is a resounding “maybe.”  
 
Dan Kelting, AWI’s executive director, explained that the data may be pointing in one of two directions, or possibly both: the first involves increased precipitation over the past several decades – an early symptom of climate change that inevitably means more runoff into waterways. A happier explanation involves the long-term benefits of the Clean Air Act; the reduction of sulfate (part of acid rain) is allowing more soil humus to dissolve. Lake browning may, at least in part, represent the recovery of natural processes.
 
Or perhaps there are other factors. So for example, average temperatures of lakes are increasing which may mean more decomposition. It’s all a bit opaque. If you’d like to check out the data yourself, you can check out AWI’s website under “Reports.”

 
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