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Keep The Lake A Lake!

(This small remnant wetland pictured above stands between the Wegmans-Target parking lot and Chautauqua Lake, trapping mud, nutrients, and pollution as they run down the hill. Wetlands like this one provide valuable protective barriers that help keep our Lake a lake. Photo courtesy John Jablonski III)

We all want to keep Chautauqua Lake a lake! No one wants the area by their dock to fill in and get shallower, whether from dead plant matter blown in by winds or mud carried in from a nearby road ditch. With so much discussion around New York State’s pending wetland regulations, seeing signs pop up with this sentiment, and so much misinformation out there about the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy’s position on those regulations, we started thinking – what is the best way to keep our Lake a lake? If that’s the goal, which we think we can all agree it is, then somehow attempting to oppose a State-wide regulation meant to strengthen wetland protections doesn’t seem the best fit.


Chautauqua Lake formed during the last ice age about 16,000 years ago. Even without human disturbance, lakes age very slowly as they fill with sediments and nutrients from the surrounding watershed, losing their depth over thousands of years, becoming more biologically productive, and eventually turning into wetlands. Lakes fill with sediments most quickly at stream mouths, where coarse sediments form deltas, and in bays that accumulate wind-driven debris. Then when you add in our own activities, this process of aging is greatly accelerated. As culverts and road ditches carry loads of sediment into the lake, soil and plant particles erode downhill from yards and grounds, forests are cleared, roads are constructed, and wetlands are drained and filled, our lake is continually being loaded with excess sediments and nutrients – taking it from deep and infertile to shallow and highly nutrient enriched. 


Construction sites and cropland without soil conservation best management practices erode quickly during storm events. Phosphorus-rich fine clay and silt particles carried in by water coat the bottom, while sand and gravel form deltas growing ever farther out into the lake. Topsoil eroded in the watershed, once deposited on the lake bottom, provides a fertile rooting bed for aquatic plants. If the lake bottom is shallow enough to receive sunlight and the bottom provides sediment with nutrients and opportunities for anchoring, either plants or algae will grow there. 


So, if we don’t want our Lake to get shallower and shallower, promoting the growth of submerged, floating, and emergent plant communities that meet the State’s definition of a wetland, what can we do? Rather than attempting to fight a State-wide regulation that we are unlikely to have much of an impact on, while simultaneously having the negative impact of hurting our chances of receiving much needed State funding, we should focus on coming together to do what we can in our own community to keep the Lake a lake. 


Despite how unpopular regulations are, one path is through citizens and government leaders advocating for and adopting local laws to better protect the Lake and its tributaries from excessive stormwater runoff, flooding, erosion, and nutrient runoff pollution. These include reasonable limits to lot coverage with impervious surfaces and requiring the capture and infiltration of stormwater to reduce stormwater discharges to downstream waters. Laws to protect stream corridors from disturbance, and to protect floodplains and, yes, wetlands that capture, filter, and absorb sediments and pollutants are important if we want to slow the rate of sedimentation and the loss of depth along the shorelines of the Lake.


Another important path is for each of us to do our part as good lake and watershed stewards of our properties. We can re-grow buffers of native plants between our lawns and the lake or nearest watercourse. We can choose not to overuse fertilizers and pesticides in our yards, as fertilizer runoff promotes aquatic plant and algae growth, which upon dying contribute to the accumulation of sediment and the loss of lake depth and lake area. We can re-wild parts of our yards with native wildflowers, shrubs, and trees. We can reduce the size of impervious surfaces in our yards by choosing porous pavements instead of concrete or blacktop, decks over patios, and only paving year-round parking areas. We can install rain gardens to capture stormwater from our rooftops and driveways.


Lastly, we can personally invest in and advocate for government and foundation support for strategically conserving and enhancing the most important areas of the Lake’s watershed forests, streams, and wetlands to capture runoff and feed groundwaters to reduce storm-driven soil erosion and fortifying groundwater recharge to feed base flow in tributaries to maintain summer lake water levels. 


Keeping Chautauqua Lake a lake requires a collective commitment to sustainable practices and informed advocacy. Each of us can contribute by supporting reasonable local laws to prevent stormwater runoff, adopting eco-friendly landscaping practices, and investing in and advocating for the conservation of key watershed areas that will help keep the lake’s depth and ecological balance. Together, through mindful stewardship and community effort, we can ensure that Chautauqua Lake stays a vibrant and healthy body of water for generations to come.

Article by Executive Director Whitney Gleason and Special Projects Coordinator John Jablonski III

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