The Living Waters: Care and Feeding of Chautauqua Lake

Photo courtesy of David Saxton from Jamestown Photos
Photo courtesy of David Saxton from Jamestown Photos
Photo courtesy of David Saxton from Jamestown Photos

Article Contributed by
Walt Pickut

The annual, springtime Chautauqua Lake weed harvest is now underway. Chautauqua Lake Association’s (CLA) six harvesters are now dredging up the tangles of invasive Eurasian Curlyleaf Pondweed. The spring cleanup began with a roundup of the winter’s floating trees, limbs and other debris and then turned to the weed problem.

The welcome clearing of the waterways is always eagerly awaited by lakeside home and boat owners. The Chautauqua Lake Association, however, is prohibited from starting the annual cleanup before June 1 by a crucial agreement with the Fishermen’s Association of Chautauqua County to protect the valuable spawning grounds of the lake’s exceptional fish population.

Chautauqua Lake has been designated the number one inland fishing lake in the nation, making it one of America’s premier, fresh water fishing destinations.

“We work to manage the surface for the people while maintaining a subsurface for the health of aquatic life and the lake itself,” said Doug Conroe, CLA’s executive director.

Photo courtesy of David Saxton from Jamestown Photos
Photo courtesy of David Saxton from Jamestown Photos

Many Lakes in One
“Chautauqua Lake is a multi-user resource,” Conroe explained, “and our job is to make it work for everybody.” The Lake, according to Conroe, is also a living thing and must be cared for to keep it healthy. “In a way, boaters, swimmers, fishers and wildlife all need different lakes,” Conroe said. Like a person, it can stand a haircut, but too much tinkering can make it sick and even kill it.

Out of the Weeds
Curlyleaf Pondweed, known to ecologists as Potamogeton crispus, is believed to be spread from one body of water to another primarily in plant fragments adhering to trailered boats. It has become common across North America since its introduction to the Great Lakes more than a century ago.

The early spring weed growth in Chautauqua Lake is 95 percent Curlyleaf, according to CLA President Don Emhart, who was reached for comment last week after a long day on the lake training harvester drivers and personally engaged in the dredging operations. The southern part of the lake is shallower and therefor warmer than the northern part, so its weed growth is more intense. The harvesters start there then move north to the colder, deeper regions.

“Typically, curlyleaf will die off naturally by the fourth of July in its natural lifecycle,” Emhart said, “but we start cutting it to a depth of 5 feet as soon as we can.”

“In July and August there is a lot more work to do,” Conroe added. “That is when 23 other, mostly native species of pond weed begin to grow. Some are minor in their effect and some are major problems.”

Photo courtesy of David Saxton from Jamestown Photos
Photo courtesy of David Saxton from Jamestown Photos

Care and Overfeeding
“Chautauqua Lake is fortunate to have such a broad variety of growth,” Conroe said. “It is far better for the aquatic life and the water quality.” Pond weeds of many kinds are actually critical to keeping the water clean by scavenging the massive, extra nutrient load the human population dumps into the lake every year. Lakeside lawn fertilizers, poorly treated household septic and wastewater discharges are among the most important over-feeders at the lake. All deliver powerful nutrients to pondweeds and algae. Plant food becomes a pollutant when there is too much of it.

New York State law now prohibits sale and use of certain lawn fertilizers within a certain distance of any lake, according to John Jablonski, executive director of the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy, headquartered in Jamestown. In fact, according to Jablonski, one of Chautauqua County’s big-box home stores is now subject to an enforcement order by the state for selling prohibited fertilizers illegally close to Chautauqua Lake.

The ongoing cleanup of wastewater plants in communities around the lake will also be very helpful, according to Jablonski, because municipal and industrial waste water are also sources of nutrients for both weeds and algae in the lake.

Building Buffers
“We’ve had a good response from property owners in setting up buffer zones,” Jablonski said.

A buffer zone is any strip of natural land at the water’s edge, a few feet to many yards in depth, where natural, native plants are allowed to thrive undisturbed. Their deep roots stop septic and fertilizer runoff from reaching the lake and provide safe habitats for insects, frogs, birds and other wildlife, especially dragonflies, which are among the main predators of mosquitoes.

A healthy lake needs at least 50% of its shoreline in native, undisturbed habitat, according to Jablonski. Currently, Chautauqua Lake is at only 10 to 15%, forcing the lake into a severe imbalance. A perfectly manicured lawn extending to the water’s edge cannot support frogs, turtles and the like, along with other wildlife that keep the insect population in check.

A well-balanced system of aquatic plants, algae, fish and onshore plants and animals, along with responsible property use, provides cleaner, healthier water for everyone and everything that uses the lake.

One of CLA’s six weed harvesters in action.
One of CLA’s six weed harvesters in action.

The Little Stuff – Algae
Algae, the microscopic, single celled plants that can tint the water green, come in three varieties, according to Conroe; good, harmful and downright toxic.

The good algae feed the fish Chautauqua Lake is so famous for. The harmful algae can make fish and people sick, but fortunately those are in the minority. The toxic algae, the smallest part of the population, can kill fish and everything else the fish feed on.

Unfortunately, in addition to feeding the early spring Curlyweed crop, nutrient polluted water overfeeds the toxic algae which can then dominate the algal community. Paradoxically, though, Curlyweed and the later summer lake weeds consume large amounts of nutrients and help keep the toxic algae in check. Clearing all weeds from a natural ecosystem, therefor, can open a door to dangerous, unintended consequences.

The Biggest Challenge
“Our major challenge is money,” Conroe said. “We have to raise $600,000 every year to take care of the lake, and it’s just not all there. We have to figure out where to cut when we must. Since Curlyleaf growth is somewhat self-limiting, we do what we can early on, but we also have to save resources for the sometimes even bigger summer growth.”

“One-third of our funding comes from villages and towns surrounding the lake by way of service agreements and general fund allocations,” Conroe explained. “The county contributes from the county bed tax. New York State contributes $100,000 every year, largely thanks to the good work of State Senator Cathy Young and Assemblyman Andy Goodell. That support has been strong, but by no means is it guaranteed. The rest comes from our annual fund drive and generous local foundation support.”

“State or federal control would present many more problems that our all-volunteer board and low-overhead staff do not. Here, we have local people caring for their own natural resources,” Conroe added.

The Swimming Pool Lake
“A living, healthy lake does not look like a swimming pool,” Conroe said. “We don’t want to see the plants, but they do provide breeding grounds for the fish and help clear the lake of excess nutrients that feed the toxic algae. No plants equals too much algae. Good weed harvesting has to be selective. We could kill everything, paint the bottom blue and call Chautauqua a swimming pool,” Conroe said with his trademark wry humor, “but nobody really wants that.”

No Poison, Please
Some lake management systems simply poison aquatic weeds, though such schemes can sicken the whole lake, starve its fish of food and destroy insect habitats that amphibians and birds also feed on. Some poisons are somewhat selective, but limited use is strongly recommended and not guaranteed as safe overall. Chautauqua Lake’s intricate, natural ecology is mostly invisible, but wholesale poisoning of the inconvenient, visible parts may not be the wisest stewardship of this irreplaceable, natural resource.

“Keeping a natural balance,” CLA’s Emhart added, “tends to work best. The good news for this year is that the milfoil, one of the more common summer lake weeds, seems to be lower this season. We have recently introduced aquatic moths and weevils which eat the milfoil stems, but they can become part of a natural, self-balancing ecosystem.”

Know More
Jamestown Gazette readers who would like to know more about the Chautauqua Lake Association, the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy or get personally involved in stewardship of Lake Chautauqua, are invited to visit and See the work of maintaining the natural habitat that makes the lake such a treasured resource and weed harvesters up close and in action.

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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.