What Is A Watershed?

An aerial view of Chautauqua Lake. Submitted photo

The staff and board of the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy get asked numerous questions about our region’s watersheds and water quality. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions and answers.


A watershed is an area of land where all surface water and groundwater drains to a common place like a stream, river, wetland, bay or lake. No matter where you live, you are in a watershed. And what you do in your part of the watershed, from how you care for your yard to how you dispose of waste, affects the waterways into which it drains.


Some of a lake’s water comes from rain and groundwater, but the majority of lake water comes from inflowing streams. If the water in the streams is polluted with chemicals or sediment, those pollutants will eventually end up in the lake. Most of a lake’s problems are actually a result of problems upstream in the watershed.


Excess nutrients and sediment in the waters cause overgrowth of lake plants as well as algae blooms, which use the oxygen in the water that fish and aquatic organisms need to survive. This process is called eutrophication.


Just like on land, water plants and organisms need nutrients to survive. When there are too many nutrients in the water, the system and rhythm of the lake gets out of whack. The two main nutrients that can cause problems in our region’s lakes are nitrogen and phosphorous. The term “excess nutrients” refers to an unnaturally high amount of nitrogen and phosphorous in the water. These two chemicals can enter our lake through pollution of streams in the watershed, as well as direct pollution in the lake and on its shores. Rainwater, which already contains nutrients, runs over the ground, picking up chemicals, fertilizers, pet waste, leaves and other matter along the way and then carries it all to our streams or storm drains, which can empty directly into other area waterways without filtration or treatment. Effluent from wastewater treatment plants and seepage from lakeside septic systems also end up in our lake. These major sources of “excess nutrients” disrupt the natural cycles in our lake and cause lake plants and algae to grow much more than they should.


Sediment comes from erosion. Plants and their root systems help to hold soil in place. When plants are removed from the banks of our streams or the shore of our lakes, there is no longer anything to hold the soil in place. The force of flowing water will begin to wash away the soil, creating eroded banks and shorelines. The eroded soil is then carried through the stream into the lake, where it wreaks havoc on the natural underwater processes.


The economic health of Chautauqua County is directly related to the ecological health of Chautauqua Lake. Much of the County’s economy depends on revenue brought in through the lake by vacationers, fishermen, boaters and campers who patronize our hotels, restaurants and stores. In fact, many local businesses depend on the tourism from the lake to keep them afloat. Also, properties near Chautauqua Lake, though comprising less than 1% of Chautauqua County’s land area, provide approximately 25% of the County’s tax base. Whether you live, work or play in this area, the health of the lake affects you.


The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is land trust organization focused on protecting the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of Chautauqua County. Since the health of our lakes directly depends on the quality of the lands and waters upstream, we work with landowners to conserve healthy lands and streams in the watershed. We also work with lakefront landowners to prevent pollution from entering the lake and to install buffer strips, un-mowed and/or landscaped areas which filter out pollutants along the shoreline. We manage a number of preserves, most of which are open to the public for nature recreation, and we offer guided activities and events throughout the year. In addition, we work with the public to educate, inform, and promote responsible water and land use practices so that, together, we can all become better stewards of the land and help keep our lakes and streams clean.

For more information, visit chautauquawatershed.org, find us on Facebook or call us at 664-2166.


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