CHAUTAUQUA - Jeffrey Diers' research indicates there isn't one big reason why Chautauqua Lake is in the state it's in.
But, every time he sees a drainage ditch from a parking lot, Diers recognizes it as one of many thousand problems contributing to the lake.
Monday, Diers led the first class in a series of four about the ecologic and economic assessment of Chautauqua Lake restoration. The first class, which primarily served as an introduction into lake restoration, gave a look at how the lake serves as the collection pool for its entire watershed and how economics in the county has contributed to its decline.
A Chautauqua Lake Association barge is pictured picking up weeds in front of the Italian Fisherman during the recent Adopt-A-Shoreline cleanup.
Some emphasis was placed upon how before settlers arrived in Chautauqua, the lake used to be surrounded by lush, wild forests all the way up to the banks of the lake.
Flora acts as a natural buffer between the land and lake, helping absorb excess water from the land and keeping sediment from becoming disrupted and suspended in creeks and rivers. According to Diers, as more flora was disposed of in favor of houses and roads and eventually malls, parking lots and business plazas, the ground lost substantial potential for absorbing water directly into the watershed. As the water needed somewhere to go, it flows down gradients until it reaches the lake.
During water's travel toward the lake, it collects sediment, such as soil and silt, and eventually deposits all of that sediment into the lake. Soil rich in nutrients and minerals that help promote growth of fauna on land also promotes fauna growth when it is deposited into the lake, which is a primary reason why submerged aquatic vegetation grows at will in the lake.
Furthermore, Diers said as more and more people move away from the lake and into the hills and mountains, more and more potential to absorb water is taken from the land. Instead, more water, silt and sediment moves along drainage paths and ditches, which inevitably find their way into the lake.
"Are we building ditches or streams?" Diers asked. "There are many ditches in this county that run most of the year as a stream which never were a stream to begin with. When you put these ditches in, you typically remove the (fauna) that used to be where the ditch was. When that water flows down the ditch, it picks up sediment, but essentially it does what nature would normally have it do anyway. However, then the drainage ditch comes to a pipe. If you've ever taken a hose and poured a great amount of water through it, you'll know that as a pipe narrows, the velocity at which water flows increases. By the time it reaches the bottom, it's set to destroy anything that nature can put in its way. Our drainage systems are promoting the erosion of land and causing sediment to enter the lake at an alarming rate."
Even for the very progressive of mind, it's difficult to look at one drainage ditch and blame it for the myriad of problems the lake is facing. However, Diers refers to the current drainage patterns in the county as, "death by 1,000 papercuts." One artificial drainage ditch does very little damage, but the drainage system as a whole is killing the lake.
"What's happening in our watershed is death by 1,000 papercuts," said Diers. "Go to any ditch and see where the sediments are moving. As we continue to build impervious surfaces, we continue to contribute erosion and sediment movement."
Diers said even home lawns constitute a semi-impervious surface.
"Only 8 percent of water percolates down far enough to reach the watershed," Diers said. "Everything else is sheet water that finds its way to a ditch. The whole point here is we're trying to say that water has to move and on its way, it's going to erode and pick up sediment and nutrients. Anything that does now allow water to recharge back into the ground ... contributes to the turbidity of the lake."
Classes are set to continue from 3:30 to 5 p.m. today through Thursday in room 103 of the Turner Community Center at the Chautauqua Institution. In addition to Diers, Dr. Fred J. Hitzhusen will also contribute to the seminar.