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Functional wetlands are our most cost-efficient partner in sustainably improving Chautauqua Lake

Despite the recent rhetoric regarding the impact of a potential wetland designation on some parts of Chautauqua Lake, we simply do not have enough information at this time to do more than speculate. One aspect of these discussions, however, is already abundantly clear – although not necessarily presented that way. It is the critically beneficial role that our remaining wetlands play in the health of Chautauqua Lake.  

There are many different types of wetlands and just as many ways to define each. However, as stated on the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation’s website, in essence wetlands are simply the areas where land and water meet. They are the areas where upland plant and animal communities transition into the submersed areas where aquatic species thrive. Simply put, the vegetated shoreline areas right above and below the waterline.

Some 500 years ago, Chautauqua Lake would have looked very different from how it appears now. Just like any other lake in the region, it would have been part of a hilly, forested landscape, occupying a low spot and receiving water from spring-fed tributary streams and from snowmelt and rainwater that runs downhill. The vegetated areas along the water’s edge of lakes and tributary streams constitute a critical component of a healthy watershed. These vegetated wetlands function as the kidneys and the immune system of the lake. They filter out pollutants and absorb nutrients as they flow downhill, converting those nutrients into healthy native plant growth before they reach the lake. They capture sediment between the roots of the wetland vegetation before it enters the open water and creates problems. In addition, these extensive root systems also anchor the shorelines and floodplains, protecting them from collapsing or eroding when exposed to wave action, flooding, or storm events. Furthermore, the structural complexity of a wetland’s vegetation and its small channels and pools forms numerous microhabitats where fish, ducks, mammals, but also beneficial micro-organisms, mussels, and other invertebrates, can shelter, feed, reproduce, and sustain the complex ecosystem of its adjacent lake.

Ongoing settlement and development in the region caused dramatic changes in the uplands, removing all our old-growth forests, and implementing new agricultural practices and other land uses that caused increased flow of sediment and nutrients downhill with every rainstorm. As long as Chautauqua Lake and its tributaries were still bordered by vegetated wetlands, this runoff would have been captured and filtered before it could impact the lake. However, at some point in time those ecosystem services stopped when the lake’s protective wetland buffer became compromised. Today, we not only have very little functional wetland left to help us prevent unfiltered nutrients and pollutants from entering the lake, but instead we place some of our most polluting land uses right on the water’s edge! Fertilized lawns (some treated with herbicides and other toxins), and areas of pavement are often only separated from the water they pollute by a concrete or steel retaining wall, which does nothing to capture sediment, absorb nutrients, or provide flood resilience.

I’m not here to debate the economic benefits that drove these dramatic changes in our landscape.  However, I do want to make an economic argument in favor of maintaining and restoring our wetlands wherever possible. Centuries of filling in wetlands that were deemed useless, or at least less valuable than whatever alternate land use folks had in mind, should be reconsidered. Because the unfathomable amounts of time, effort, and money that we now need to spend on erosion control, bank stabilization, sediment removal (dredging), pollution control, and mitigation of excess nutrient loading could have been avoided, or certainly greatly reduced, if Chautauqua Lake’s protective wetlands had remained intact.

The US Fish & Wildlife Service estimates that by the mid-1980s, the USA had lost over half its original wetlands, and those losses continue to date. The same holds true in our region and many of our wetlands have been drained, filled, or otherwise impacted over time. The good news is that the remaining wetlands in the watershed continue to do for us all those things that we cannot seem to accomplish with even our most sophisticated engineered or chemical solutions. They continue to absorb nutrients, trap sediment, mitigate flooding, and prevent erosion wherever we allow them to exist. They help keep our lake healthier, our businesses and neighborhoods safer from flooding, and our region more scenically beautiful. And the really wonderful thing is that they do it all for free! Wetlands work quietly, 24/7/365, and are entirely solar-powered (no panels needed!), and look great doing their job, all dressed in wildflowers, birds, butterflies, frogs, turtles, and other wildlife. Anyone who has ever canoed down the Chautauqua Lake outlet or taken a ride on the Chautauqua Belle in or out of Jamestown can attest to the beauty of our last sizeable wetlands on the lake. Unfortunately for lake users, these systems filter the water that is leaving Chautauqua Lake, and their beneficial impacts are enjoyed in Jamestown and farther downstream. Having similarly functional wetland systems along the lake shores and bordering the tributary streams that feed into Chautauqua Lake is what we should be striving for. Still, the opportunity for residents and outside visitors to experience the natural beauty of a ride down the lake’s outlet or to spend a relaxing afternoon fishing provides real economic potential.

There are many undeniable ecological and economic benefits to protecting our existing wetlands. I have no doubt that this notion is one of the main drivers of the DECs new wetland regulations. Finding a balance between short-term, in-lake improvements to keep Chautauqua Lake’s appeal high, while simultaneously working towards a more financially and ecologically sensible and sustainable future is what needs to happen. Rather than simply vilifying wetlands as a problem, we should embrace their incredible restorative abilities. They have always kept our lake healthy and thriving until we compromised their ability to function properly. Wetlands truly are the original tool in that metaphorical “toolbox” which is so often referenced in conversations about lake maintenance.

I understand people’s concerns over the potential impacts on property values but do want to point out that properties protected by wetlands or vegetated shorelines are significantly less likely to be damaged by our increasingly intense storm events than those protected by lawn and/or a bulkhead. A point that has also not gone unnoticed by insurance companies and is reflected in the cost of flood insurance premiums.  

Whatever shape a potential future wetland designation on parts of the lake’s shorelines will take remains to be seen. However, I am absolutely convinced that protecting our remaining wetlands is critical for the long-term health of Chautauqua Lake. And I am equally convinced that investing in the restoration of compromised wetlands, or the construction of new vegetated buffers along our shores in places where this makes sense, will give us the most bang for our buck if we want our lake to be ecologically and economically sustainable.    

Written by Twan Leenders, Director of Conservation for Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy

Photo of wetlands at Whitney Point at the Prendergast Creek Wetland Preserve

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