By: Becky Nystrom, President, Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy Melanie Smith, Chair, Chautauqua-Conewango Consortium, A Waterkeeper Alliance Affiliate
Chautauqua Lake is an old lake, rich in plant diversity and an abundance of living things. The shoreline waters host a well-established diversity of aquatic plants that support multiple natural communities, hold sediments in place, and provide food, oxygen, and critical habitat for countless creatures. All are woven together in an amazing web of interdependency, complexity, and connection. But our lake suffers from a pervasive problem of excessive weeds and unwanted, unsightly, and sometimes harmful and toxic algal blooms.
For many decades Chautauqua Lake has been the receptacle for the by-products of human activities in the watershed. This includes the nutrients in animal waste from farms, human waste, fertilizer, and eroded soils caused by development throughout the watershed. The phosphorus, nitrogen, and other nutrients introduced through these land use practices have contributed to today’s excessive weed and algae growth and harmful algal blooms (HABs). We must think of the nutrients and sediments in Chautauqua Lake not as the “causes” of our lake’s problems, but as the symptoms of a sick watershed. Our lake’s severe algae and plant growth problems result from a distressed system long in the making, and it’s urgent we acknowledge and address the root causes at work.
The bottom line is—we must quickly and effectively change the way we manage the lands in our watershed. According to the Trust for Public Land and American Water Works Association (2004), watersheds should be maintained in at least 60-70% forest and wetlands for clean, non-polluting waters to feed the lake to support improved water quality, wildlife and fisheries habitats, and human health and enjoyment. We must conserve as much of the remaining forest land as possible, protect remaining wetlands, and reforest and restore as much of the watershed as possible. Landscaping of residential and commercial areas must be re-considered, and roadway stormwater systems reconstructed to better absorb precipitation to recharge groundwaters and reduce the severe erosion dumping fresh soil into our waterways every year.
Because New York State declared the lake impaired for phosphorus (based on EPA standards) in 2012, a document titled “Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL)” was issued to provide thresholds for various sources of phosphorus. What is rarely discussed, however, are the costs of the needed environmental actions.
The TMDL states: “When lakes receive excess phosphorus, it “fertilizes” the Lake by feeding the algae.” We must opt for the most cost-effective environmental actions with the greatest capacity to reduce nutrients, preferably both phosphorus and nitrogen, reaching the lake. If an action, such as herbicide treatment, only makes the area look better, and does not address nutrient reduction, then those dollars are wasted. Making the reduction of nutrients the top priority directly cuts into the process that causes the unwanted algal blooms.
Low-cost actions that can be taken by individuals to reduce nutrients abound; protect and retain our tree canopy, allow dead trees to remain, when safe, to retain their deep root systems, scoop the poop, mulch your grass clipping and leaves, avoid using lawn fertilizer routinely, allow no-mow zones to grow, plant a buffer or rain garden. Actions taken by local governments and lake management officials should be held to the same nutrient-reduction standard. It is the local governments that can adopt and enforce stormwater runoff laws to keep more sediment and nutrients from reaching the lake. It is the local governments that can help support the mechanical harvesting of plants which removes the plant nutrients from the lake as opposed to treatment with herbicides which releases these back into the water column and sediments where they can contribute to algal blooms.
It’s worth noting that the species targeted by herbicide treatments – Curly-leaf pondweed and Eurasian watermilfoil – are Tier 4 invasives, meaning that, with the extent of their growth, they cannot be eradicated (Western New York Partnership for Invasive Species Management, or WNY PRISM). These species have been well-established for decades and are now providing services to the living lake communities. Herbicide treatments cannot “target” the Tier 4 species without also causing collateral damage to intermingled native species, including native, beneficial pondweeds and coontail. Financing a large-scale killing of native plants, either directly or indirectly, funds the reduction of the natural biodiversity of the region, including the foraging, spawning, and rearing areas of our world class and economically important muskellunge, walleye and bass fisheries.
We call on our local governments and Chautauqua Lake management efforts to hold watershed land conservation and enhancement efforts at a much higher priority. To truly address the root causes of nutrient loading in Chautauqua Lake, a pro-active, preventive approach is urgently needed to reduce the loss of watershed forests and wetlands, protect streams and stream corridors, control stormwater and erosion, and reduce sediment loading into the lake, including effective stormwater erosion control regulations. Every year in which local governments fail to adopt and enforce such laws means more sediment and pollution are reaching the lake and contributing more phosphorus to be released as “internal loading” each summer.
The sources of our lake’s problems emanate from the watershed. Unless we effectively reduce the flow of nutrients and sediments into the lake from our severely damaged watershed, the lake will incrementally get worse and its symptoms more expensive to treat. Protecting the quality of the water for this lake’s ecology, wildlife habitat, outstanding fisheries, Class A drinking water source, and watershed is a high moral obligation, to the benefit of our region’s economic, ecological, and social well-being.
Let’s work together to make sure that the watershed gets the appreciation, funding, energy, new laws, enforcement, and attention necessary to save and restore its forests and wetlands, and to heal its streams and shorelands delivering clean waters to Chautauqua Lake.