Chautauqua Institution Defends Its Legal Action

Chautauqua Utility District Superintendent Michael Starks, left, talks about concerns he has in regard to blue-green algae content and herbicides used in Chautauqua Lake that could affect drinking water the district draws from in-lake. John Shedd, Chautauqua Institution's vice president of campus planning and operations, joined Starks in a lecture given at the Turner Community Center on Tuesday. P-J photo by Eric Zavinski

CHAUTAUQUA — As matters concerning Chautauqua Lake come to a head this spring, Chautauqua Institution defended its legal action taken last year and shared optimism that variables won’t add up to similar action again.

Vice President of Campus Planning and Operations John Shedd expressed this sentiment during a lecture of the Turner Winter Series hosted at the Turner Community Center on Tuesday. Host Greg Peterson also interviewed Michael Starks, the superintendent of the Chautauqua Utility District, along with Shedd and asked questions regarding the state of Chautauqua Institution’s stewardship of the lake and how the utility district’s operations come into play.

Last year, Chautauqua Institution filed a lawsuit against the town of Ellery and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation for what Chautauqua Institution staff said was an unsatisfactory environmental review process during which questions they had concerning how their drinking water could be affected were viewed to be answered insufficiently.

In December, the lawsuit was dismissed by Judge Donna Siwek, state Supreme Court Justice, not due to a lack of merit but due to timeliness, as the lawsuit was filed after June 2018 herbicide applications had taken place.

Shedd shared with the Turner audience that he interpreted that as meaning Chautauqua Institution would have had approximately one day to file a lawsuit correctly, considering the small gap in time between permits being authorized by the DEC and herbicides being applied.

“We exhausted every means that we could prior to taking legal action,” Shedd said. “In particular, we were worried about drift.”

Chautauqua Institution staff had attended public hearings on the possibility of herbicide applications and felt that their questions regarding drift were answered with “shallow” responses that were not scientific and were based on an “inadequate” Supplemental Environmental Impact Study.

“We decided we had to do something,” Shedd said.

Starks agreed and talked at length about how the utility district is the first player in making sure the citizens it cares for are healthy.

He said that the water sampling budget of the utility district has been increased by 50 percent in the past two years herbicides have been reintroduced to the table.

“Anything that could contaminate our source is a big concern to us,” Starks said. “Public health and safety is our utmost concern.”

Despite clarifying and elaborating on some of the contention of 2018 lake matters, Shedd spun the lecture positively and underpinned environmental optimism with the recently-announced Memorandum of Agreement for the Chautauqua Lake Weed Management Consensus Strategy developed by the Chautauqua County government, and Ecology and Environment.

Shedd praised the memo during the lecture and suggested it will be a start to securing a cleaner lake, freer of nuisance weeds and blue-green algae. Both he and Starks agreed that herbicides will likely be a part of a toolkit to establish that vision.

In terms of Chautauqua Institution’s stewardship, Shedd reviewed how stormwater management projects have helped control runoff originating from their large portion of the watershed that connects to the mile and a quarter of waterfront Chautauqua Institution owns. To be accountable for what they had been contributing in terms of nutrients that help grow nuisance vegetation and algae, various stormwater projects from semi-pervious surfaces and stabilized creeks to rain gardens and artificial wetlands have been implemented in the past several years.

“We’ve seen a huge reduction in phosphorus and nitrogen that goes into the lake,” Shedd said.“We want to see a class A lake 10 years from now.”

Follow Eric Zavinski at twitter.com/EZavinski

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