Experts and watchdogs are tackling a major cause of pollution on the lake

More than 700 septic systems along Canandaigua Lake are too close for comfort, according to those charged with ensuring the lake's health.

Situated within 200 feet of the lake, the systems not doing their job are at risk of feeding noxious aquatic plants — like this summer’s blue-green algae that was so intense it shuttered beaches and sparked health alerts. While properly functioning systems aren’t a problem, too many fall into the faulty or failing categories and are now the target of lake watchdogs stepping up the fight against lake pollution.

Local leaders who make up the Canandaigua Lake Watershed Council last week discussed the problem in the form of a draft model local law that communities around the lake could use to zero in on the threat. The law contains a number of recommendations. Towns can adopt the law as is, or modify and adopt their own version.

“We need to review this, focus more on these issues,” said Gorham Town Supervisor Fred Lightfoote, co-chairman of the council. The organization is made up of government leaders from the 14 municipalities whose communities rely on the lake for drinking water.

Canandaigua Lake is a source of drinking water for more than 70,000 people and accounts for millions of dollars annually in economic benefits from recreation and tourism. Septic system pollution is one of a number of threats getting attention that include development pressures, runoff from agriculture and other land uses, and a changing climate of gradually rising temperatures and extreme storm events.

This past summer’s first confirmed blue-green algae bloom on Canandaigua Lake is further evidence more needs to be done, according to council members and others tackling the issue.

“It is my personal hope that all of the lake communities will give serious consideration to adopting the model law,” said Canandaigua Town Supervisor Pam Helming, who also is a member of the council.

Much can be done at the local level, said Canandaigua Lake Watershed Manager Kevin Olvany, who reviewed the draft law he is working on during a council discussion Dec. 2. Lake communities around upstate New York are adopting such laws to pinpoint failing systems and stop those systems from polluting, he said.

The Onsite Wastewater Law has a number of recommendations. Those include towns requiring that septic systems within 200 feet of the lake be inspected every five years. (Olvany said parcels around Owasco Lake, in Cayuga County, need to be inspected every two years.) The law also requires inspections for deed transfers and certain structural changes such as teardowns, rebuilds or expansions of the home or business using the system. Other features of the law include required annual maintenance of certain types of systems that are sure to fail if not properly maintained, such as aerobic treatment units and peat moss systems. Failing systems need to be upgraded on a town-wide basis under the law.

Olvany said that as a home-rule law, municipalities would have a framework for adopting their own law that is the same or a version of the model. Enforcement would lie with local officials, while inspections could be done by any qualified professional.

Property owners would have the option of having Canandaigua Lake Watershed Inspector George Barden do the inspection for a fee or pay a private inspector. Barden is employed by the Canandaigua Lake Watershed Commission, and the inspection program is managed by the Ontario County Soil and Water Conservation District through an agreement with the commission. According to the SWCD website (, the current fee is $175 for a Site Report and additional fees may be required if the inspector must hand-dig to expose system components.

Barden said that back in the 1960s some leach lines were put in as close as 25 to 35 feet from the lake. Now these old systems, along with many others that in some cases were put in before data was even kept on them, are a major culprit. Of the 766 systems that are within 200 feet of the lake — think three times the length of a bowling lane, or less — Barden has no data on 175 of them.

“This is an area that does need to be addressed,” Barden said.

The problem of polluting septic systems is not unique to Canandaigua Lake. Nationally, New York as a whole ranks in the bottom half when comparing all 50 states in properly dealing with septic systems, Barden told the council. New York ranks 33rd in the nation in dealing with the problem, he said.

After minor revisions, the draft law will come before the council again in early 2016 and the towns should have the law in hand shortly after that. Helming said she expects her board to kick off the new year by reviewing the draft law during its Jan. 11 meeting. A public hearing on the subject may be held in February or March and depending upon community feedback, the Town Board could adopt the model law as early as April or May, she said.

A few towns around the lake have parts of the law already on the books.

In Gorham, for example, a local law requires an inspection for a deed transfer. Town Zoning Officer Gordon Freida said the town adopted the law about 10 years ago and it has worked well.

“There was was some push-back at first, but now even the banks and lending institutions are on board," he said.

The time of a sale is a good time to make sure everything works, for the protection of both the buyer and seller, Freida said. He added that Gorham has public sewer access along most of its lakefront. Gorham has just 17 septic systems within 200 feet of the lake, he said.

“We are very fortunate,” Freida said.

Other towns are not so lucky. South Bristol, for example, which also has a local law requiring inspections for deed transfers, has 300 onsite wastewater systems within 200 feet of the lake.

“There are going to be a lot of parcels,” said Olvany. While it will not be possible to address every single system even if all the towns adopt a local law, because of some exemptions and waivers for various reasons, it will go a long way to helping, he said.

The council members are combing through details of the draft and asking questions, and Olvany and other experts will continue to fine-tune it. Another review will come up in February.

“It is a work in progress,” Olvany said.

Ultimately, Olvany said he hopes it serves towns well in adopting or improving their own local laws.

“We are trying to produce something as uniform as possible,” he said.

By the numbers

70,000 People relying on Canandaigua Lake for drinking water

766 Parcels on lake with septic systems within 200 feet of lake

175 Systems watershed inspector has no data on

About the draft law

Main Points in the draft Model Onsite Wastewater Treatment System Law:

— Require onsite wastewater system inspection at the time of property deed transfer, on a town-wide basis

— Require inspections every five years on parcels within 200 feet of the lake that have onsite wastewater systems. (Parcels around Owasco Lake are required to do this every two years.)

— Inspections can be done by anyone who has received certification through the Onsite Training Network. The inspection must follow the Onsite Training Network procedures and reporting. In other areas of the state, only government inspectors do the inspection.

— Require annual maintenance of enhanced treatment unit systems, which will fail if they are not maintained properly. Examples are aerobic treatment units, peat moss systems, etc.

— Failing onsite wastewater systems must be upgraded (required on a town-wide basis)

— Parcels within 200 feet of the lake that have a substandard system will need to upgrade the system within one year. Typical substandard systems are too close to the lake, they do not have enough leach line length, or the septic tank is too small for the size of the house or number of bedrooms. Substandard systems close to the lake have a higher likelihood of contributing nutrients to the lake that feed aquatic plant growth and blue green algae blooms. Existing parcels that have site constraints that can’t meet all of the requirements will need to specifically document that they are upgrading the system as best as possible.