Chautauqua Lake: Local Scientists Sort Scientific Fact From Fiction

In a press release dated June 28, 2007, U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton described Chautauqua Lake as the “Gem of Chautauqua”, while Governor Cuomo recently called it “…one of Western New York State’s greatest tourism assets.” There is no doubt that those who live in Chautauqua County or visit for seasonal activities also understand the value of the lake for aesthetic, recreational or economic reasons. There has been much controversy about the management of plant growth in Chautauqua Lake, dating back to studies done in the 1930s. Our lake still bears the legacy of arsenic in its sediments after applications of the herbicide sodium arsenite from 1955 to the early 1960s. Various other chemicals have been used over the decades in an effort to control submerged non-native aquatic plants, but this practice stopped after local organizations spoke out against the use of chemicals to control aquatic plants, recognizing potential health risks and long-lasting negative impacts on the lake. In the early 1990s, macrophyte management switched to only biological control methods (aquatic moths and weevils) and mechanical harvesting. With the exception of a localized application of Aquathol K in 2002, the lake had been herbicide-free for decades … until this summer.

Actions by the Chautauqua Lake Partnership (CLP) resulted in a DEC-sanctioned application of 91 gallons of Aquathol K, and over two tons of Navigate in Bemus Bay on June 26, 2017. Both herbicides were applied to certain stretches of shoreline by SOLitude Lake Management, a contractor hired by CLP. Local scientists have raised questions concerning SOLitude’s data collection methods, species identification, calculation errors, data analysis and conclusions, the process by which the application was permitted, and the ecological and health impacts of applying both Navigate and Aquathol K together. In addition, SOLitude’s financial stake in this project calls into question the company’s objectivity in carrying out the data collection, herbicide application, as well as determining the effectiveness of the treatment. Given that a careful evaluation is needed for an unprecedented situation like this, we intend to help the public sort scientific fact from fiction.

What you should know about Chautauqua Lake:

¯ Chautauqua Lake is one of the top fisheries in New York State and is ranked among the top musky lakes in the U.S.

¯ It harbors a wide variety of native aquatic plants, but also some non-native, invasive species. Comparison with a 1937 study shows that this has remained relatively unchanged for more than 80 years.

¯ It is inherently clean; spring-fed tributaries within sight of the lake feed it clean water. Problem-causing pollution is generated by humans in the lake’s small watershed and washes in with rain water.

¯ In shallow areas, wind-driven waves and power boat activity re-suspend bottom sediments and associated nutrients into the water column. A stable, diverse aquatic plant community absorbs nutrients, holds sediments in place, helps suppress algal blooms, and also provides critical cover and food for the fish that drive our fisheries.

¯ The lake’s diverse aquatic world of fish, mollusks, invertebrates, zooplankton, etc. creates a complex food web that supports a great diversity of wildlife. Migratory and resident bats, songbirds, waterfowl, eagles, and osprey all depend upon the health of the lake as well.

¯ Chautauqua Lake has a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) in effect. It is a Class A lake that provides drinking water for communities such as Chautauqua Institution. The SEIS is intended to protect its water quality for human consumption, for the fish hatchery, as well as in fish spawning locations and other sensitive areas.

¯ Unfortunately, Chautauqua Lake does suffer from high phosphorus levels, which causes eutrophic (excessive nutrient) conditions, leads to excessive plant growth and its designation as an impaired water body. That designation caused the NYSDEC to create a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) which recommends levels of reduction for phosphorus sources. Much of the phosphorus that can potentially be addressed is entering the lake from fertilized lawns, inadequately treated sewage, agricultural fields and other poor land-use practices. Loss of vegetated wetland buffers allows nutrient-rich runoff to enter the lake unfiltered.

Are aquatic plants important and how do we manage excess plant growth?

We have many native plant species that continue to benefit our lake; however, a limited number of non-native, invasive plant species have caused trouble for decades. Eurasian Watermilfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum) and Curly-leaf Pondweed (Potamogeton crispus) are two “nuisance” plants that have invaded the lake through human introduction. These are not “bad” plants, they are simply plants that have fewer natural predators in this environment and therefore grow relatively unchecked. Annually, Curly-leaf Pondweed dies back naturally by early July, but the Watermilfoil persists longer. Interestingly, research in China and Japan, where these plants are native, shows that Eurasian Watermilfoil serves as a biological control agent that prevents toxic algal blooms. It releases a chemical that inhibits the growth of the toxic alga Microcystis. Could it be beneficial for us in the same way? Certainly something worth looking into!

At the request of the County Department of Planning and Economic Development and the Chautauqua Lake Management Commission (now Chautauqua Lake and Watershed Alliance) and in collaboration with consultants and key partners, local scientists and lake experts served on the Macrophyte Management Strategy (MMS) Technical Review Committee, to guide the development of a comprehensive, science-based MMS for Chautauqua Lake. The purpose of this plan, finalized in March 2017, was to provide a holistic, environmentally-sensitive, science-based approach for the management of macrophytes in Chautauqua Lake. Unfortunately, the June 26 herbicide application to Bemus Bay disregarded the recommendations of the MMS, specifically in two respects:

1) The plan specifically states that 2,4-D is not recommended for rooted macrophytes in Chautauqua Lake and should not be allowed in any zones containing environmentally sensitive areas. However, two herbicides were used: Aquathol K and Navigate – the latter contains 2,4-D as its active ingredient.

2) The plan specifically states that herbicide application is not allowed in Game Fish Spawning and Rearing zones prior to July 1. However, two herbicides were applied on June 26 to a designated fish spawning and rearing area within Bemus Bay (MMS Zone 154).

The individuals signing on to this letter are not speaking on behalf of their respective organizations, but instead support it as individual scientists active within our local community. We are gravely concerned about the use of questionable science and political process to achieve the goals of the CLP. We firmly believe that there is a process to follow, which should include objective, third-party review and public input before chemicals are put into a body of water that serves all of us. Our end-goal is simply to protect and steward the ecological and economic health of our beloved Chautauqua Lake, and all those dependent upon it.

Janis Bowman, M.S., Biology

Jane Conroe, M.Ed., Chemistry

Rebecca L. Nystrom, M.S., Biology

Dan Bowman, M.Ed., Professional Charter Fishing Captain

Twan Leenders, Ph.D., Biology

Melanie Smith, M.S., Biological Oceanography

Sherri A. Mason, Ph.D., Chemistry

Jonathan Townsend, M.S., Biology

Jennifer Phillips Russo, M.S., Biology

Cassandra Brower, M.S., Natural Resources Management

Caroline Van Kirk Bissell, Educator

Linda Seleen, M.S., Biology

Lynda Malmrose Acker, Ph.D., Molecular Physiology

Jonathan Titus, Ph.D., Biology

Ruth Lundin, Educator

John f. Dilley, Ph.D., Mechanical Engineering

Bill Seleen, D.V.M.

Peter Beeson, M.S., Ph.D., Civil Engineering/Hydrology

Priscilla Titus, Ecologist

Joe Galati, NYSDEC Fisheries Biologist Retired