Seeking A Solution

County Officials Share Lessons Learned From Lake George

Representatives from Chautauqua County government and Chautauqua Institution learn more about practices on Lake George that have helped keep it healthy. County Executive George Borrello said Lake George was once in a hotly debated state and has come out of political discourse on the other side. Submitted photo

LAKE GEORGE — Three months ago, officials from Chautauqua County government, the State University of New York at Fredonia and Chautauqua Institution visited Lake George in the Adirondack region to learn about its recently successful model for lake conservation and tools that could assist Chautauqua Lake in similarly positive ways in the New Year.

County Executive George Borrello, legislator and Chautauqua Lake and Watershed Management Alliance Chairman Pierre Chagnon, Director of Planning and Community Development Don McCord, Watershed Coordinator Dave McCoy and assistant biology professor Courtney Wigdahl-Perry visited Lake George on Oct. 10 along with President Michael Hill, vice president of operations and campus planning John Shedd and Board of Trustees Vice Chair Dorothy Trefts from Chautauqua Institution.

Hill, Shedd and Borrello elaborated on the purpose of the visit and said that Lake George had been going through a situation similar to what Chautauqua Lake is going through now with various health problems and multiple lake nonprofits providing different answers regarding how to make the lake better. Eventually, a new model was implemented for Lake George in order to prioritize unbiased science as the basis for all policy decisions that eventually safeguarded the northeastern New York lake and made it healthy again.

During the October visit, the visitors learned from researchers of the Jefferson Project, a public-private partnership driven by scientific study, how having an entity kept separate from making any decisions itself regarding the lake was able to provide the data that led policy makers to make effective decisions to improve the water quality of Lake George.

The lake nonprofits including the Chautauqua Lake Association, Chautauqua Lake Partnership and Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy all conduct their own science and promote different means and priorities for current lake health. Chautauqua Institution representatives said a key take away from the Lake George experience is that there should be one group that does the science foremost that hopefully everyone listens to in order for a comprehensive plan to be made.

“We’ve got to start looking wholistically at long-term solutions instead of short-term gains,” said Hill, who noted in-depth research is a must. “We all seem to have different science. There’s actually much more black and white.”

Shedd added that another key take away was that more studies shouldn’t necessarily be done but that experts should create the “best ways to collect accurate data about the lake to help understand what is actually happening.” The Chautauqua County visitors found the practice of the Jefferson Project using environmental monitoring and in-lake technology as very encouraging and something that could inform stakeholders about the health of Chautauqua Lake in the future.

The Jefferson Project is a partnership established by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, IBM Research and the Fund for Lake George working together to set up 500 sensors to track water quality and movement throughout Lake George’s watershed. Data gathered includes information regarding amount of water runoff, quality and circulation.

“That technology would translate to Chautauqua Lake,” Shedd said.

Trefts, as an IBM executive, first brought the Jefferson Project on Lake George to the attention of Chautauqua Institution stakeholders. Once they and the county learned about the similarities of the lakes, a visit was planned. Hill believes that with the “clarity on fact” that can be discovered, as was the case with Lake George, a comprehensive solution can be managed with the political courage it will take to implement it on the county level.

Borrello, Chagnon and the alliance have continued to try to take a more advanced leadership role related to the issues of Chautauqua Lake. After finishing his first year as county executive, Borrello said he wants to continue looking into future possibilities for Chautauqua Lake.

“Oftentimes, you tend to be myopic,” Borrello said of how some may have thought the situation of Chautauqua Lake as unique.

He learned that invasive weed species and harmful aglae blooms also affected Lake George and that a political division originally prevented much work from being accomplished before the Jefferson Project was implemented. Borrello said there needs to be an emphasis on collaboration and not just cooperation since everyone has the same goal of improving the health and quality of the lake.

“It spoke to the tone at the time before they undertook this initiative,” Borrello said and further explained that to get the ball rolling the Lake George Town Supervisor had to extend an olive branch to the Fund for Lake George, who were considered extreme environmentalists at the time. “It gives me hope that we can take a leadership role here.”

Shedd said that if another entity is mobilized to perform scientific analysis in Chautauqua Lake, then all member groups of the alliance would be better able to apply for funding by showing the state government that Chautauqua County is geared toward one comprehensive plan for the lake.

“That way we all show the state we’re heading in a direction of consensus,” Shedd said.

In terms of combining to create a bigger voice for the concerns of New York lakes, Borrello signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a Clean Lakes Collaboration to protect Lake George, Chautauqua Lake and other vital lakes in the state.

For the past few years, other initiatives that have helped Lake George manage lake health have included checkpoints for the inspection and decontamination of boats before vessels are allowed to enter Lake George. This was set up through the lake’s Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Program, which is the only mandatory boat inspection and decontamination program in the eastern United States.

“It just became how people use the lake,” Hill said after noting tourism continues to be a driving industry to support the town of Lake George. “We have to make some hard choices about that.”

Hill said he thinks collaboration and implementing universally accepted science isn’t just a long-term goal and could see a much healthier lake as a result in as little as five years. He mentioned that erring on the side of lake health versus short-term solutions will be important to maintain the lake for years to come.

“I think we have all the ingredients to create a Jefferson Project-like scenario,” Hill said.

Borrello said that he believes common ground can continue to be found. The alliance will play a major role in that as new options for Chautauqua Lake are explored. He said that if a bigger, somewhat more complicated lake like Lake George that extends through multiple municipalities and counties can have its stakeholders work together, then so can the people of Chautauqua Lake.

“There truly needs to be much more collaboration and certainly much more focus on being diligent on the preventive side,” Borrello said.

Hill and Shedd also agreed that the recipe going forward to establish a more productive plan for the lake will be complicated and will require lots of discussion going forward.

“No one was debating science in Lake George,” Hill said. “All decisions are derived from science.”

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