From Top to Bottom and Back Again: Every inch of the watershed is in the lake….and the lake is in every inch of the watershed!
It has often been said amongst old hydrologists that the lake at the bottom of a watershed contains all that exists in that watershed, from the most distant ridge all the way down to lakeside gardens and lawns.
A watershed is the basin-shaped piece of land with highpoints as its boundaries that slope down toward the lake. When it rains or snows, the whole 176-square mile Chautauqua Lake watershed collects water that flows downhill via 300 miles of streams into the 20-square mile lake. Along the way, the water carries with it everything it can move or dissolve – including soil, litter, pet waste, oil, road salt, pesticides and fertilizers. How we, our businesses, our towns, our county, and our state and federal governments manage the land above the lake is the Number One determinant of the lake's ecological health and its suitability for human activities. The use of every land parcel affects the health of the lake.
It's important to recognize the fact that Chautauqua Lake returns to us exactly what we give it. If we give it phosphorus and nitrogen, it will give us weeds and blue-green algae. If we give it road ditch run-off and let the banks of its tributary streams erode, it will give us less depth and a muddy bottom. If we replace its absorptive shoreline with concrete breakwaters, it will give us fewer spawning beds for fish and increase the likelihood of floods. These are natural laws – and laws that are not about to be challenged. At least not without consequences.
We have centuries of evidence and information to inform our choices. It’s worth asking ourselves which aspect of the watershed we appreciate most and why that might be so. Then follow up that answer with how to best protect that function. What one action can you or your community take to protect the lake? It almost certainly will come back to limiting harm to remaining shorelines, forests and stream flows from the top of the ridges all the way back down to lakeside. Once the insult or injury is in the lake itself, it is generally too late to do anything but try to mitigate a bad situation. In other words, prevention is truly the better part of proper treatment and protection of the lake. This precious resource, held in common by all the residents of the watershed and even farther afield, has a particular appeal and promise that it can only fulfill if the waters flowing into it carry mostly just water rather than water containing unpleasant pollution of other materials.
The Chautauqua Lake watershed is an integrated and interconnected system of forests, streams, wetlands, floodplains, and shorelands. Given the fact that the lake's shoreline is almost entirely developed, the most urgent management need is to save the few remaining wetland, shore and near-shore spaces for fish and wildlife. Lakeshore wetlands are among nature's most biologically diverse and productive places. Lakeshore plants hold the shore in place, protecting it against erosion from waves and ice. They provide breeding, nursery, food and cover for pan fish, game fish, amphibians, turtles, snakes, mammals, and waterfowl, including many animal species of economic value.
Whether the interest is in inherent value posed by aesthetically pleasing places or economic activity or valuation of lakeside properties, the health of the rest of the watershed is what elevates any of those interests. From top to bottom and back again.