92% of the septic systems scheduled to be inspected in 2023 – year one for the Lake George Park Commission’s new mandatory inspection program – were completed by mid-December, according to Park Commission officials.
Of those 371 septic systems, 45.6% of the systems passed, 23.2% failed and the remaining systems were found to be substandard in size, improperly located or in need of minor repairs.
“The fact that 55% of the systems failed to pass inspection demonstrates that there was, indeed, a need for this kind of program on Lake George,” said Dave Wick, the Lake George Park Commission’s executive director.
“A failure rate of 23% was higher than we anticipated,” said Commission deputy director Joe Thouin, who oversees the inspection program.
Failed systems, which must be replaced within six months, have included cesspools and those with metal rather than polyethlene or cement tanks, some leaching untreated sewage into the ground or even discharging it to the surface.
Systems given passing grades were sized and located appropriately, said Thouin.
The remaining 16% were those in need of some type of repair, and according to Thouin “those repairs can increase the longevity and the efficiency of the system.” These must be completed within five years.
2,500 Septic Systems in Critical Environmental Areas
According to the new regulations, which took effect in May, 2023, all residential and commercial septic systems situated within 500 feet of Lake George or 100 feet of a major tributary are subject to the mandatory inspections.
“The best method of insuring that septic systems are functioning properly is by inspecting them on a routine basis,” said Thouin. “If not designed properly, if not constructed properly, if not maintained, they can threaten water quality.”
Of the 6,000 septic systems installed within the Lake George watershed, roughly 41% or 2,500 of them are located within critical environmental areas near the lake or its tributaries.
“Given topography, soil types and the age of the houses, we expected there to be environmental impacts from at least some of those systems,” said Thouin.
The Commission’s intention is to inspect 500 systems, or 20% of those within the critical environmental areas, once every five years.
Meeting State, Local and LGPC Standards
Systems that comply with the New York State Department of Health’s design standards and those detailed in the Environmental Conservation Department’s 2015 “Design Standards for Wastewater Treatment Works in the Lake George Basin” are deemed acceptable.
(Queensbury and Lake George have adopted their own rules. In June, 2021, the Town of Bolton adopted a law directing homeowners to purchase an Enhanced Treatment Unit if seeking an area variance to install or replace a septic system. All island homes must be served by ETUs regardless of lot size or distance from wells and shorelines, the law states.)
According to Thouin, systems that meet local standards are also acceptable to the Lake George Park Commission.
New systems, including those which failed inspection and which must be replaced, are required to meet DOH and DEC standards as well as the Lake George Park Commission’s somewhat higher, basin-wide standards.
(Those elevated standards are accessible at the Lake George Park Commission’s website. “The Commission’s enhanced standards for all new and replacement onsite wastewater treatment systems in the Lake George basin will further protect Lake George from impacts related to wastewater systems and associated nutrient pollution,” the Commission states.)
Bolton was among the towns with the highest percentage of failed systems, Park Commission data shows. Lake George and Queensbury saw greater rates of success.
Owners of residential systems within the critical areas are required to pay an annual fee of $50, those with commercial systems, $100. The fees fund the annual costs of the inspections, said Dave Wick.
Wick said 98% of the business and homeowners who were charged inspection fees in 2023 had paid the fee by mid-December, 2023.
LGPC Pleased by Public Response to New Program
It is not surprising that more than 50% of the systems inspected this year failed to meet New York’s standards, Dave Wick said.
On Otsego Lake, for example, 58% of the systems inspected in 2005-2006 failed. In 2019, 33 to 40% of the systems evaluated by the Lake George Waterkeeper for the Town of Lake George failed to meet the state’s standards.
Each year, success rates are expected to rise, said Wick. And once systems are upgraded and less phosphorus and nitrogen seep into the lake, less green algae is visible along the shore.
“We have been very pleased by the response from the public,” said Wick. “Everyone whose system failed to pass the inspection have told us they have arranged for repairs or replacements. We believe we’re seeing less algae along the shores where systems have been upgraded.”
Property owners who fail to comply with the new regulations could face fines of $500 per day. New systems now cost as much as $50,000. Small grants and loans to replace septic systems are available to qualified applicants through the Lake George Association and Warren County.