In Adirondacks, acid rain never went away

The water is too acidic to support a robust trout population in the area 'AIDS of the forest' Clean Air Act of 1990 hasn't solved problem

August 08, 1999|By Stevenson Swanson | Stevenson Swanson,Chicago Tribune

EAGLE BAY, N.Y. -- The remarkable thing about Big Moose Lake on a bright summer day is what is not happening.

Canoeists paddle across the sparkling lake, which lies close to this sleepy Adirondacks village. Teen-agers water-ski. Children mount a high-pitched campaign to win permission from their mothers to go swimming.

Nobody is fishing.

Anglers used to come to Big Moose Lake for the trout, but the trout have not been plentiful for many years, thanks to a long-distance pollution problem that was supposed to be well on its way to being solved almost a decade ago.

But acid rain never went away.

The water in Big Moose Lake, like the waters of more than a quarter of the 2,800 streams and lakes in the Adirondacks, is still too acidic to support a robust trout population. Sulfur dioxide, emitted from coal-burning power plants in the Midwest, becomes sulfuric acid when it mixes with atmospheric moisture. After traveling hundreds of miles, it falls as rain and snow on this scenic pine-covered mountain range.

"It's like living downwind of a volcano that's erupting 24 hours a day," said C.V. "Major" Bowes, owner of the Cove Wood Inn, which overlooks Big Moose Lake.

Clean Air Act

Acid rain, which emerged as an environmental threat in the late 1970s, was tackled in the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act. Sulfur dioxide emissions at the nation's largest power plants have been cut in half, thanks in part to an innovative pollution-credit trading scheme that gives utilities an incentive to reduce their emissions even more than required.

But a recent government report found that despite the cuts "the recovery anticipated in 1990 has not been realized" in the Adirondacks, one of the regions most severely affected by acid rain.

"There's less sulfur hitting the ground now, but that doesn't restore the damage that's already been done," said John Sheehan of the Adirondack Council, a regional environmental group. "We need a lot less hitting the ground to begin to recover."

And because of concentrations of other acid-producing pollutants in precipitation, the report found that many parts of the country that were not previously thought of as acid-rain hot zones could be affected in the future.

Environmentalists in upstate New York say the latest assessment shows the need for further reductions in emissions from power plants. Utilities argue that existing regulations, which will mandate further emissions cuts starting next year, should be given time to work.

"Every utility has done what's required, and in fact they've gone beyond what's required," said John Kinsman, manager of atmospheric science for the Edison Electric Institute, a Washington trade group that represents shareholder-owned utilities.

Reduction in wildlife

One of the main effects of acid rain is a reduction in the variety of wildlife in areas whose lakes and rivers become too acidic to support fish and other aquatic life, such as frogs and clams.

Big Moose Lake, for instance, used to be home to close to 20 kinds of fish, recalled Bowes, who has lived in the Adirondacks since 1948. Now, perhaps a half dozen hang on. Brook Trout Lake, also in the Adirondacks, no longer has any brook trout.

As fish populations decline, so do the numbers of their predators, such as otters and bears.

"It absolutely has an impact on diversity," said Walt Kretser, who runs a lake-monitoring program for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. "You'll no longer have mink in there. Even the raccoons might be gone."

And nuisance species that would have been kept in check skyrocket. Black flies, whose painful bites raise welts and cause bleeding, have proliferated in the Adirondacks because the fish that normally eat their larvae are no longer there.

'Spring shock'

Even lakes that have relatively normal waters most of the year have shown a decline in fish life because of a "spring shock" of acidity that washes into the lakes when the winter snows melt, Kretser said.

Studies have found that although 27 percent of Adirondack lakes are acidic year-round, up to 58 percent of the lakes become dangerously acidified for several weeks in the spring. That timing coincides with the spawning season for fish.

"If you have changes in the [acidity levels], we'll lose a lot of those fish populations," Kretser said. "It can wipe out a year of brook trout."

Scientists and environmentalists believe that acid rain also affects trees by leaching nutrients out of the soil. That robs the trees of food and weakens their ability to survive. In low-lying areas of the Adirondacks, large stands of stark, barkless dead trees are a common sight.

"Acid rain is like AIDS of the forest," said Bowes. "It doesn't kill trees outright, but it weakens them. Other things take them down."

When President George Bush signed the Clean Air Act amendments in 1990, many in the Adirondacks felt that the acid-rain problem would soon be a thing of the past.

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