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Lake George Waterkeeper Chris Navitsky (Photos:  Susan Waters)
Lake George Waterkeeper Chris Navitsky (Photos: Susan Waters)

After a decade on patrol, Lake George Waterkeeper sees more, bigger threats

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Lake George's crystal clear water has been famous for centuries. It's one of the few big lakes in North America that's still certified as safe to drink. The water's clarity is a huge draw for tourists looking to swim or boat.

Ten years ago, Chris Navitsky hired on to be the new Lake George "Waterkeeper." He had been working for developers, helping to design wastewater treatment systems. In his new role, Navitsky emerged as one of the strongest, and sometimes one of the most controversial, voices advocating for the protection of Lake George.

After a decade on the job, Navitsky says the lake faces growing pressure from development and invasive species that could change its character permanently. Brian Mann has our profile.

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Seasonal cabins along the shore are being replaced by large homes and mansions, often requiring major changes to the landscape.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

It was a gray summer morning when Chris Navitsky welcomed me aboard his boat in Bolton Landing. He carved a line out onto the open lake. The mountains on the eastern shoreline were a wash of misty light. The only flash of color was a bright yellow parasail towed behind a motorboat.

“You see the bigger expansions recently, but you’ll definitely see the change as we go south,” said Navitsky. He came to Lake George in 2002.  An environmental group called the Fund for Lake George was creating a new position: a "waterkeeper." The goal, he says, was to bring a fresh perspective to the conversation about development and second home construction that were reshaping the shoreline.

“Where the old cottages were knocked down for the bigger, you know, five- or six-bedroom type of homes, all useable acreage is maximized down towards the shoreline and it’s a form of cluster development in one of the most sensitive, environmentally sensitive, area,” said Navitsky. “We’re losing the vegetation important for habitat protection, shoreline stabilization, erosion protection and also reducing run-off.”

Navitsky says his experience as an engineer designing wastewater systems gave him the needed expertise. He said, “I actually worked for the developers of the world; I worked for the Walmarts and Home Depots.”

He arrived just in time for the biggest crest of the second home development wave.  He says it took people a while to get used to having a new face in the room, asking questions at local meetings. He said, “The developers turned around and they said, ‘Who are you? What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be asking these questions.’”

Unlike most of the U.S. and the North Country, the real estate market on Lake George has remained pretty intense. According to Navistky, each foot of shoreline costs approximately $12,000. As we drove the shoreline, we saw property after property where old seasonal cabins were being replaced by mansions or townhouse developments. In many areas, it’s hard to find what looks like a natural Adirondack shore; it’s all manicured lawns or stone docks.

“You can see they basically cleared and blasted into the hillside. You can see the rock up on the left side of the house, and, you know, removed all the vegetation, brought in fill and completely changed what the native and natural landscape was,” said Navitsky.

Navitsky says this kind of intense development has combined with a couple of other trends, intensifying the environmental challenges on Lake George. A growing number of invasive organisms have crept into the lake, including Asian clams.  And the amount of silt and phosphorous pollution leeching into the lake has meant new challenges, including algae blooms and the growth of a dead zone in the south end of the lake.

“As nutrients get into the water column, algae grows, algae dies off and accumulates on the bottom, and that is decomposed by bacteria. What happens then is the bacteria draws oxygen out of the water, and the oxygen drops to levels that won’t sustain the cold-water fisheries that like to get down into the deeper spots of the lake, especially this time of year. So we have a creation of a dead zone which is in the south end of the lake which clearly corresponds to where there’s more development,” said Navitsky. According to him, the lifeless area has grown three-fold in the last two decades.

During his years on patrol, the waterkeeper has challenged development permits and filed lawsuits challenging rapid growth along the shoreline. He also pushed unsuccessfully a few years ago for the Lake George Park Commission to enact strict new rules designed to protect streams that flow into the lake.

He acknowledges that his work hasn’t made him the most popular guy in the small towns and villages that ring the lake. He said, “I think you always have a feeling you’d like everybody to like you, but I’ve accepted that I have a job and that may, at times, be in conflict with people. It may be awkward at times if you walk into the post office or Stewart’s to pick up some milk.”

But Navitsky says he’s always willing to talk to local leaders and developers. He also says he works carefully to base his arguments on science and existing environmental law. “I think, after 10 years, people have come to accept the waterkeeper and the program and our approach. We have been a thorn, I think, in some people’s sides, but ultimately we’re here to speak for the protection of the lake and I think that that is in the best interest of anybody that’s interested in business or living and enjoying Lake George.”

Navitsky says the next decade could really decide the long-term future of Lake George.  Will the cumulative impact of development, invasives, phosphorous pollution and other hazards turn this into just another North Country lake?  Or will it remain one of the most crystal clear, drinkable lakes in the US? 

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