A Diet to Save a Lake

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Article Contributed by
Walt Pickut

“Chautauqua Lake is an overfed lake,” John Jablonski told the 2018 season’s last GreenUp Jamestown convocation on Tuesday night, May 1. “If we continue to feed it, it will continue to have problems.”

The meeting at St. Luke’s Church hosted one more standing-room-only crowd of residents from all across Chautauqua County searching for solutions to the increasingly troublesome lake-weed and toxic algal blooms choking Chautauqua Lake every spring and summer, damaging Western New York’s premier scenic attraction, tourist, fishing and vacationing destination.

Many Views Voiced

Proponents of chemical treatment, others who favor more aggressive dredging and those who champion the most advanced water conservation measures gathered to hear a balanced report on recent gains and losses in the battle to save Chautauqua Lake. Jablonski’s presentation was titled “Saving Chautauqua Lake-Our Greatest Natural Asset.”

Jablonski, co-founder and Jamestown Area ‎executive director of the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy, added, “No matter what else we do, if we continue to develop the shoreline, we will continue to have problems.”

The economic urgency of lake preservation headlined the discussion with recognition that about 22,000 fishing and hunting licenses are issued in Chautauqua County every year. In addition, the lake is surrounded by approximately $1.5 billion of assessed property value. Though it covers a mere 1 percent of the county’s land area, it provides nearly 25 percent of the entire assessed value of the Chautauqua County. As a result, lake real estate effectively lowers the taxes for everyone else in the county.

Chautauqua Lake is estimated to produce more than $75 million a year in tourist revenues. It is also one of the most heavily fished lakes in the State of New York producing an estimated $15 million a year in related revenue. Green, soupy water, waterways choked with weeds and decaying plant matter along the shorelines become very expensive problems if left untreated.

As a result, Chautauqua Lake preservation, according to Jablonski, must protect both the lakeshore’s economic values and the living lake itself, a balancing act which, in the view of many, demands opposing strategies.

A Common Goal

The mission of the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy, and the nearly one dozen other regional organizations and civic groups which have worked together for decades in many cases to save the lake, encompasses many common goals. Their aim is to preserve and enhance the lake’s pure water quality, its beauty and its self-sustaining ecological health, along with its 11 tributary streams and the entire regional watershed basin.

Jablonski repeated a commonly heard challenge. “Do we, as communities with a common goal, have the political and economic will to protect and preserve Chautauqua Lake for ourselves, for our children, and for their children?”

Symptoms vs Causes

Treating symptoms of an illness without treating its cause, most people would agree, will not result in a cure. Lake weeds and harmful algal blooms, according to scientists studying Chautauqua Lake – and many other lakes across New York State – are symptoms of a sick lake, not the cause.

Two main strategies have gained the most attention among lake preservationists. The first is a poisoning/harvesting tactic and the other is to kill weed by starvation – eliminating the massive nutrient pollution loads entering the lake every year. Algae blooms and weed growth are nutrient driven.

Harmful cyanobacteria algal blooms can produce toxins so deadly that the equivalent of one drop in a volume the size an average backyard swimming pool can cause severe liver and nerve damage in humans and has been known to kill pets swimming in the lake.

Chemical Treatment

Herbicides and algaecides, “water weedkillers,” products with a market value projected to reach nearly $2.8 billion by 2022, do kill weeds and algae, which are the most noticeable symptoms of a nutrient-polluted lake. While government regulations strictly limit their use in time, location and quantity, manufacturers assure users of their safety and efficacy.

Use of algaecides, however, according to Jablonski, like copper sulfate, antibacterial or pesticide disinfectants, are all toxic chemicals. Strong chemicals have been used in the lake since the 1930s leaving a legacy of strange and toxic substances now accumulated in the lake bottom. These include arsenic from previous treatment programs, diquat and a host of others. Storms, turbulence, lake level changes and other factors continually – but unpredictably – raise these materials into the water column with uncontrollable effects on drinking water quality, wildlife and fish populations and the growth of useful algae and plants.

It is also important to note that Chautauqua Lake is the public drinking water supply for Chautauqua Institution, Chautauqua Lake Estates and of the Village of Chautauqua

Alum is frequently used to precipitate excess phosphorus to form a cap atop nutrient and pollution-rich layers at the bottom of the lake. Jablonski noted, however, that “…it would take train loads of alum to achieve that.” Chautauqua Lake has 11 major tributaries which, during only one storm, would wash away the treatment and re-expose the bottom sediments. Alum can also be very toxic and difficult to control.

None of the chemical, short-term treatments, unfortunately, addresses the now well-known, actual causes of algae and weed overgrowth.

Starve the Algae – Save the Lake

Chautauqua Lake is designated as “Officially Impaired” by the state of New York due to phosphorus and nitrogen pollution. New York State has issued a total maximum daily load for the amount of phosphorus that can enter the lake from various land uses and wastewater treatment plants. This limit is currently being exceeded on a large scale and has been for years.

For years, raw sewage has been allowed to enter the lake in many locations. Recent upgrading of regional wastewater treatment plants and systems around the lake, removing between 90 and 95 percent of the phosphorus entering the lake from that source, are now in the final stages of completion by early 2019. This clearly does represent an instance of strong political will to address the issue, though a $3 million gap remains in plans for extension of sewer lines along western portions of the lake.

Without nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, weeds and algae simply cannot thrive.

Agricultural Sources

Farm and residential fertilizers (rich in nitrogen and phosphorus) fertilizes everything that grows in Chautauqua Lake when storm runoff is not controlled. In addition, typical spring and summer “gully washer” storms flush massive amounts of sediment into the lake every year. One farm in particular, along a tributary to Chautauqua Lake, has been measured to lose 6,000 tons of soil sediment into the lake annually.

Some farms lose as much is 30 to 35 feet every year from useful acreage to streambank erosion.

Streambank control and limiting cattle and other farm animal access to streams (and the manure and mud they add to the water) are also high priorities, requiring increased participation and cooperation from local farmers. More than 50 percent of the phosphorus entering the lake comes from agricultural sources. Residential lawns, yards and parking lot runoff amounts to approximately another 20 percent of the phosphorus load.

Welcome the Trees

“The best water purification system by far,” Jablonski said, “is trees and their roots.” Lakeshore woods and shoreline grasses filter water, let it soak into the ground, enter the water table and re-emerge into the lake as pure water. “Nature does it best.”

Because forested watersheds produce the cleanest water, the more forest in a watershed, the cheaper it is to treat the rest of the water. Ideally, Jablonski noted, Chautauqua Lake needs 70 percent of its shoreline forested. Currently the lake is at approximately 62 percent forested.

Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy currently has fostered the conservation of more than 1,100 acres across the Chautauqua County and plans to continue acquiring land for this purpose. This includes work with the New York State Department of environmental conservation to preserve more than 2 miles of Chautauqua Lake shoreline.

The Solution

In conclusion, Jablonski returned to the initial question. “Do we, as communities with a common goal, have the political and economic will to protect and preserve Chautauqua Lake for ourselves, for our children, and for their children?”

“I think a lot of things need to happen if we are going to do that. We need you, as the citizens, advocating for our Lake and our waterways, to enact stable funding for these projects. This could be encompassed by establishing a Watershed District with a levy to support the new funding. Our government must adopt aggressive storm water laws. We can do a lot of things, including chemical treatment, but without such laws it will all be a waste of money.

Stand up and be heard in these town hall meetings to save our Lake. I encourage all of you to get involved with all the groups that are working to save the lake.”

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Walt Pickut
Walt Pickut’s writing career began with publishing medical research in1971 while working at the Jersey City Medical Center and the NYU Hospital and School of Medicine. Walt holds board registries in respiratory care and sleep technology as well as bachelor's degrees in biology and communication, and a master's degrees in physiology from Fairleigh-Dickinson University in New Jersey, with additional graduate work in mass communication completed at SUNY Amherst. He currently teaches Presentational Speaking in the Houghton College PACE program at JCC and holds memberships in the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He lives in Jamestown with his wife Nancy, an MSW social worker, and has three children: Dr. Cait Lamberton in Pittsburgh, Bill Pickut, a marketing executive in Chicago, and Rev. Matt Pickut in Plymouth, IN.