Sampling shift

ALSC water quality monitoring operation likely to fold, but testing will continue

Sue Capone, a long-time Adirondack Lake Survey Corporation employee, takes a water sample at Heart Lake in the High Peaks in mid-October. (Enterprise photo — Justin A. Levine)

RAY BROOK — A corporation responsible for conducting long-term monitoring of Adirondack lakes, ponds and streams is likely to cease operations at the end of the year, but one state agency is planning to continue the sampling in a reduced capacity.

The Adirondack Lake Survey Corporation, which was founded in the mid-1980s, has conducted regular water quality monitoring on 52 lakes scattered around the Adirondack Park. But that is likely to change at the start of the new year, as the ALSC will run out of money for its operations.

The ALSC is funded by a combination of state and federal money, but most of its funding has come from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), which funds the water sampling as part of an effort to track the impacts energy production has on New York’s natural environment.

Going back to the 1980s, there were clear trends in Adirondack waters that indicated power plant emissions from the Midwest were causing the acidification of Adirondack lakes and streams, and ALSC is responsible for the vast majority of the data collection that has informed both state and federal environmental regulations.

The ALSC staff not only collect the water samples, but also evaluate them at their in-house lab, which sits behind the state Department of Environmental Conservation building in Ray Brook. But due to a change in focus by both ALSC and NYSERDA, ALSC’s lab and field operations will close and the eight staff that are employed will likely be out of work.

ALSC lab manager Phil Snyder poses in front of water quality evaluation equipment at the ALSC lab in Ray Brook. (Enterprise photo — Justin A. Levine)

Field and lab work

Many of the employees have worked there for a decade or longer. Sue Capone has worked ALSC since the 1980s, and says she will miss the varied work that she has done for the ALSC.

“We have different types of field work that gets done,” Capone said during a sampling trip to Heart Lake, outside of Lake Placid, last week. “We’ll hike anywhere between four and 12 miles a day, plus all the driving. It’s just very interesting to see all the lakes we go to.”

Capone said the remoteness of the work often requires two or more employees to collect samples, and that reliance on each other in difficult conditions creates a family-like atmosphere.

Jed Dukett, left, and Rep. Elise Stefanik look over data at the Adirondack Lake Survey Corporation’s lab behind the state Department of Environmental Conservation headquarters in Ray Brook. (Photo provided by ALSC)

“There’s weight a lot of times to carry, and gear,” she said. “So not only do people have to think about being physically good and competent in quality control, but you also have to be physically fit and competent because you don’t want to be in the woods with someone who can’t help themselves or help you.

“The people are just phenomenal. You spend a lot of time with them, you trust them, you get to know them. They’re important.”

Capone said the consistency and meticulousness of the ALSC crew is one of the factors that has led to changes in air quality legislation, and worries that a new group might not be as dedicated.

“You could send anyone, but the good thing about us is we’re extremely consistent,” she said. “So yes, you could send anybody in there theoretically, but the fact that you have the consistency throughout the years and the aptitude and the attitude.

“It’s the importance of the people doing a good job and really being sold on the whole mission.”

Sue Capone, left, and ALSC program manager Jed Dukett pose at Heart Lake in the High Peaks during a recent sampling trip to the small lake. (Enterprise photo — Justin A. Levine)

Capone said due to her longevity with ALSC, she has witnesses first-hand the changes that have occurred since water sampling started.

“In the ’80s it was exciting and you got to go to so many places,” she said. “And in the ’90s, you got to go to the same place every month so you actually could see the changes as they came along.

“There are just some areas that I absolutely love.”

Phil Snyder, the ALSC lab manager, said the longevity of the program has created so many samples that trends in the water quality are hard to ignore.

“I ran the numbers the other day,” Snyder said. “Since I started in 1999, it’s been about 36,000 samples. Since the ALTM program started in 1992, it’s like 42,000 samples and that doesn’t even include the survey in 1984.

“If you calculate that out by the number of parameters (and) the number of data points, we’re in the 600,000-data points (range).”

ALSC program manager Jed Dukett, a Saranac Lake native who now lives in Tupper Lake, said the consistency of the sampling ALSC does is perhaps the most important part of what the corporation has done over the years.

“It starts in the field with consistent collection of samples, and it transitions to the lab,” Dukett said. “We have to be consistent, we have to do high-quality work and we’ve been able to do that.

“And that’s why our trends show what they show. The researchers that use our data are able to make strong, solid points about the success and where we are in terms of the Clean Air Amendment Act, and it starts with this work right here.

“That’s the one thing about the staff that I appreciate the most is the quality of work. They’re the best at what they do,” he said. “The reason why we’ve been able to put out good products is because of the people doing the work. That’s the bottom line.

“Whatever is second is a long way down the line.”

Sampling continues

The end of the ALSC as its been does not mean the end of Adirondack water testing. Other groups do routine testing on specific waters or watersheds, and NYSERDA plans to continue the 52-lake sampling course, but with less frequency.

Bill Opalka, a spokesman for NYSERDA, said a contractor, which could be the ALSC, would be selected this month to continue the sampling. Opalka said in an email that seven bids had been received for the continued sampling, and ALSC’s interim board president Willie Janeway told the Enterprise last month that ALSC would be submitting a bid.

The new request for proposals (RFP) designates $1 million over the course of the next five years. That money could be awarded to up to three contractors. One of the biggest hits to the ALSC is the loss of money for the lab, since NYSERDA is partnering with the federal U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) lab in Troy to process all the water samples. Opalka and Dukett both said the USGS lab has been involved with the monitoring for years, with Opalka adding that the USGS lab gets its funding from the Environmental Protection Agency through an interagency agreement.

Janeway implied that the Trump administration’s decisions regarding environmental regulations could reverse some of the positive trends the ALSC has monitored over the years, and worries about the legal impact of changing the sampling routine at this time.

“What we’re really worried about — the board of the survey corp. — is that we have a statistician saying, ‘Don’t worry, the reduced sampling still has statistical significance,'” Janeway said in September. “But I’ll bet you my lunch that the lawyer for the power plants in the Ohio Valley will have a statistician that will say, ‘Well, you actually changed your monitoring protocol at that same time, so that’s not valid data, so throw out the lawsuit.'”

But Opalka said NYSERDA, the DEC and the federal EPA have determined that the proposed sampling protocol will be enough.

“The evaluation showed that samples collected in June are statistically the same as July; samples collected in August are statistically the same as September and so on,” Opalka wrote in an email this week. “Using historical ALTM (Adirondack Long Term Monitoring) chemistry data, but eliminating every other month, the trends hold and are of the same statistical power as the whole dataset. Therefore, NYSERDA, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and US Environmental Protection Agency are comfortable that sampling can be reduced to every other month without a loss of the ability to detect trends.

“The resulting cost savings can be applied to other research and monitoring activities that will bring more value to our understanding of acidic and mercury deposition and the resulting environmental effects.”