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Creating Climate-Resilient Watersheds, Lakes, and Communities

As I looked out over Chautauqua Lake last week, I saw waves and open water across most of the lake. This is quite sobering. Our climate has and is changing rapidly – even here! So what does this mean for the health of our lake and the safety of us in our communities?

 

Climatologists and other scientists tell us that we can expect warmer, wetter winters with shorter periods of snow cover and ice cover on our water bodies. This will have many impacts. Instead of having a protective blanket of snow over the landscape slowly melting into the ground and recharging groundwaters for most of the winter, our land surface is being impacted with multiple snow melt and heavy rain-runoff events and erosion events throughout the winter months. This means that more nutrients, including phosphorus-laden soil and plant debris, may be washed into the lake over the winter than in past decades. It also means we have little or no ice and snow cover over the lake to shade submerged aquatic plants such as non-native curly-leafed pondweed which grow through the winter if they receive sunshine. If our lake starts the warm season with higher levels of nutrients from multiple strong winter rainfall runoff events, that also sets up the lake for earlier algae blooms.

 

More intense rainstorms are becoming more frequent over the spring, summer, and fall seasons as well, punctuated with drought periods between. Our fifty- and one-hundred-year storm events are happening way more frequently, causing heavy runoff, flooding, and erosion events which impact public safety, property, infrastructure, and the health of our streams and lake. The scientists who produced the Seneca-Keuka Watershed Nine Element Plan for Phosphorus, completed in August 2022, used a 10% increase in annual precipitation for their modeling of future phosphorus loading to those lakes to take into account the change in precipitation in the Finger Lakes region. Their modeling indicated that phosphorus loading from the watershed would increase by 18% annually in future years! Imagine how much phosphorus reduction needs to be implemented to reduce phosphorus loading for measurable water quality improvements to offset these climate change impacts! For Seneca-Keuka, their goal is to implement a whole slate of best management practices to reduce phosphorus loading by 15-40% in each sub-watershed to achieve a basin-wide 7% annual net reduction within 30 years.

 

Another impact of warming seems to be increasing the temperature stratification of lakes, meaning that the difference in temperature between surface and bottom waters is increasing during the summer. This impedes water circulation, trapping low oxygen waters at the bottom and increasing the frequency of anoxic phosphorus release from lake bottom sediments. This makes more phosphorus available for algae blooms and cyanobacteria (“blue-green algae”) which are responsible for harmful algae blooms (HABs).

 

For our area’s lakes and communities, there are many actions that municipalities, landowners, and farmers can take to make our watersheds, lakes, and communities more climate resilient. Farmers can implement conservation tillage and responsible crop rotation on farm fields and retain and plant vegetated buffers along watercourses and streams. Towns and villages can strictly enforce floodplain laws and use state-of-the art sources to inform landowners of flood hazards before developing properties. Municipalities must adopt and enforce stormwater laws that require on-site management of stormwater and treatment to protect downstream properties, streams, and our lakes from flooding. Municipalities should also adopt policies and actions that result in no-net loss of forest and wetlands to protect the investments of their taxpayers in community infrastructure and healthy lakes.

 

Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy has already begun working with municipalities such as the Towns of Busti, North Harmony, and Poland, Village of Lakewood, and City of Jamestown, as well as Chautauqua County, Chautauqua Lake and Watershed Management Alliance, and Chautauqua County Soil & Water Conservation District to implement climate resilience, flood control, and pollution control projects to protect public safety, reduce property damage, and enhance the water quality of Chautauqua Lake, Chadakoin River, Cassadaga Creek, and other waterways. Protecting and investing in “green infrastructure” such as enhancing floodplains, constructing wetlands and rain gardens, and re-planting forests are important actions. More projects are on the way with various partners. Considerable state grant funding is available to communities become more resilient and meet these challenges.


photo and article by Special Projects Coordinator John Jablonski III

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