Chautauqua Lake Weed Management: ‘One Size Doesn’t Fit All’

The Chautauqua Lake Partnership (Partnership) is progressing its 2018 projects, the only lake organization with active projects bringing new solutions to both in-lake and watershed issues.

One of those projects, supporting the potential application of herbicides to targeted areas of Chautauqua Lake to control invasive weeds, is getting a lot of attention. It is being scrutinized through a $250,000 Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), State Environmental Quality Review and location-specific permit applications, all overseen by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

Although we believe environmental impact-mitigated weed cutting will, with targeted use of herbicides, be necessary for years to come, the “one size fits all” 25 year weed cutting experiment has not met the needs of property owners, lake users or the lake itself and has not undergone such environmental review.

There’s evidence that unregulated weed cutting has actually encouraged proliferation of invasive weeds. We encourage those who care about Chautauqua Lake and support lake management to consider that evidence.

There was no Eurasian Water Milfoil in the Lake in 1937 and Curley-Leaf Pondweed was found in only one area, off the shore at Phillips Mills, just south/west of Bemus Point. In 2017, a 200-point survey of Bemus Bay showed that both invasive weed species had choked out the native weeds and taken over the Bay. Comparison with 2007 data in Chautauqua County’s 2017 Macrophyte Management Strategy for Chautauqua Lake (MMS) reveals significant increase in the densities of invasive species in Bemus Bay. Lake users from Mayville to Celoron describe a weed problem steadily worsening year-to-year.

Some say this decline is natural and to be expected and there is nothing which can be done about it. We at the Chautauqua Lake Partnership don’t agree with that fatalistic view.

Two centuries of human activity have accelerated the natural eutrophication (enrichment of the water by nutrients that alter a lake ecosystem) of the Lake. Development along the shores began in the early 1800’s and reached its peak at the turn of the century. Chautauqua Institution was founded in 1873, the Athenaeum Hotel incorporated in 1880 and by 1900 many “grand hotels” lined the shoreline. Paddlewheel steamers served as major transportation from the railroad station in Mayville to the outlet in Jamestown. Because humans have helped cause this eutrophication, it is up to us to do all we can to reverse it.

The Chautauqua Lake Association (CLA) began weed cutting in 1952 and has continued through the present. The DEC applied herbicides to the Lake from 1955 to 1959 and the CLA assumed that responsibility beginning in 1960. In 1989, then CLA President and current Executive Director Doug Conroe, speaking to the Jamestown Chamber of Commerce and the Jamestown Manufacturing Association, extolled the virtues of herbicides with these words: “You can use herbicides – we have – you’ve seen the effectiveness of that. From 1982 to 1988 the lake was in beautiful control. It had one of the best fishing populations ever, and no one, I repeat, no one has ever documented any harm from the herbicide program. I’d love to have them challenge me on that statement.” Herbicide treatments ended in 1992, weed cutting has been the solitary weed management method since, and the “beautiful control” Doug described in 1989 is only a memory.

Unfortunately, the negative impacts of weed cutting are not known by most who care about and use the Lake. And, many of those who do know, choose to look the other way instead of demanding mitigation.

Weed cutting in Chautauqua Lake is non-selective. Weed cutters cut all plants that contact the cutting bar. The DEC’s Division of Water’s A Primer on Aquatic Plant Management in New York State, April, 2005 Draft (Primer), cautions that “Plant communities may be altered by harvesting.

If both native and fast-growing exotic plants are cut to the same degree, the exotic plants, often the original target for harvesting, may grow faster and dominate the plant community. This is especially true for plants that propagate by fragmentation [such as Eurasian water milfoil].” The DEC’s , Second Edition, 2009 (Diet for a Small Lake) further explains that this “is especially true for plants that propagate by fragmentation, and these are usually the plants originally targeted for removal.

Stressed plant communities often favor the selective growth of exotic plants. As with the backyard lawn, cut plants often rebound with more luxuriant growth.” So, it follows that weed cutting, as currently practiced, has contributed to the proliferation of invasive weeds in Chautauqua Lake.

All weed cutting fragments are not recovered. The 2017 MMS, the Primer, and the Diet for a Small Lake all caution that if weed cutting is performed, all fragments must be removed because “fragments of cut plants that are not picked up and removed can move from the treatment area by wind or currents, spreading the plant to other portions of the lake or to downstream water bodies. This can result in enhanced propagation of those plants that spread primarily from fragmentation, such as milfoil.” In addition, harvesting can create significant fragmentation and a surface ‘bloom’ of cut plants that can migrate around the lake. Unless rapidly removed, these plant masses will migrate to the shoreline of an unappreciative downwind neighbor.”

The MMS includes the statement that “[a]ll harvested plant material must be collected and removed from the lake”, a requirement that is not being met. CLA has reported that 10%, 1.6 million lbs., of the 15 million lbs. of weeds cut in 2015 remain unrecovered. So, it follows that weed cutting, as currently practiced, has contributed to the spreading of invasive weeds and in-lake, near shore and shoreline fragment accumulation in Chautauqua Lake.

Numerous other negative impacts are identified in the Primer, the Diet for a Small Lake, the MMS and by shoreline property owners and lake users: Fish and invertebrates die on the cutting bar or conveyor, algae-feeding decomposing weeds/fragments are deposited on the lake bottom, weed fragment-based and foul-smelling algae-substrate sludge form on the shoreline and near shore, noisy and unsightly equipment with a large carbon footprint operates throughout the summer, shallow water weeds are not cut and there is no long term weed control.

For these and other reasons, many states regulate weed cutting. Florida, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, and Vermont all require a permit. The District of Columbia requires a weed cutting plan be approved before work begins. And Washington State requires harvesters abide by the state’s plan and comply with specific regulations.

The Chautauqua Lake Partnership believes an optimal combination of environmental-impact mitigated targeted weed cutting and targeted herbicide treatments is best for Chautauqua Lake weed management. The Partnership supports the Towns of Ellery as Lead Agency and the Towns of Busti, Ellicott and North Harmony and the Villages of Bemus Point, Lakewood and Celoron as Involved Agencies in development of the SEIS to facilitate permitting of herbicides. This will make it possible to actually utilize the herbicide “tool” included in the County’s MMS for Chautauqua Lake weed management.

As a result of a Chautauqua Lake-specific agreement between the DEC and the CLA in 1986, herbicide use is undergoing an intense environmental review through the SEIS. We believe similar environmental review, and, as in other states, mitigation of negative impacts and oversight of weed cutting is overdue in Chautauqua Lake.