State Of The Lake Discussed At CLA Annual Meeting

CLA President Paul Stage speaks during the annual Chautauqua Lake Association dinner meeting at the Athenaeum Hotel. Photo by Lee Stein

As herbicide spraying got underway Monday on Chautauqua Lake, the Chautauqua Lake Association held its annual dinner meeting at the Athenaeum Hotel with several informational sessions kicking off the yearly event late in the afternoon.

While the state of the lake has been a hot topic in Chautauqua County, the thrust of the three presentations focused on the lake’s positive attributes, brought to life by studies, charts, pictures and reports from three presenters during the two-hour presentation.

Retired veterinarian Bill Seleen spoke about the diversity of wildlife in the area — from avery to aquatic to mammals — while pointing to pictures of a spiny soft-shelled turtle, red foxes, beavers, coyotes and the hoary bat-all creatures that share their local habitats with humans.

But the rich diversity of birds in the area rounded out Seleen’s presentation, as he illustrated the important role the lake plays in the life of our local wildlife, especially winged creatures — both migratory and those that call the area home.

“We have 345 documented species of birds in Chautauqua County,” he told the large gathering, while showing images of some of the more interesting species, “of which 146 are nesting birds, so we must be good stewards.”

An impressive number of types of ducks call the lake home, according to Seleen, but particularly interesting to the audience was his report on the health of the Bald Eagle which “we’re seeing more and more of,” thanks to the cessation of the use of DDT in the 1970’s, which weakened the shells of the Eagle’s eggs. Ospreys are also making a comeback in the area.

Particularly relevant at the afternoon gathering was a presentation by Bob Johnson, an ecologist and principal of Racine-Johnson Aquatic Ecologists, also retired after 45 years in Cornell University’s aquatic research laboratory.

Johnson, who has observed the lake’s plant community over a span of fifteen years, explained why aquatic plants are important to the health of the lake. They are a habitat and a source of food for insects, fish and invertebrates and help to balance the delicate ecosystem of the lake.

Noting that weeds and plants can get in the way of recreational use of the lake, Johnson said he favors a more broad approach to management, including encouraging the use of insects that can help halt the growth of vegetation, noting there’s still a place for herbicides “in the scheme of things.”

Small aquatic insects like the weevil, moth and caddisfly are important herbivores and were responsible for the destruction of the watermilfoil in Burtis Bay in 2007, according to Johnson.

The Eurasian watermilfoil is an aquatic plant that most often grows in still or slow-moving water, and has become a nuisance in Chautauqua Lake and other ponds and lakes across New York state.

Johnson believes utilizing insects that feed on the nuisance weed might prove to be more successful than herbicides as a long term solution. Johnson also feels that applying herbicides to the lake early in the summer season will have minimal effect on native species of plants, some of which are not yet growing.

A comparison of milfoil in Burtis Bay between this year and last year shows an increase in the presence of the plant, but he noted that the growth of the weeds has already been halted thanks to the presence of aquatic insects.

Other native plants, like water-willow help to cut down on the wave action of the lake, Johnson explained.

Janis Bowman, Professor of Biology and Environmental Science Coordinator at Jamestown Community College gave an overview of the lake’s aquatic communities from plankton to fish to birds and how they are inter-related, forming their own ecosystem.

“I want to focus on the beauty of Chautauqua Lake,” she began, pointing to a picture of a Chautauqua Lake sunset on the screen, “because in the water, what we don’t see is amazingly gorgeous,” also noting that what we hear about the lake is often negative.

Bowman pointed out that aquatic plants are not just weeds, but play a role in balancing the ecosystem, of which humans are a part of.

“Areas with higher biodiversity tend to be more stable,” she said, “and those systems are more resilient to negative disturbances.”

Bowman pointed out the effects humans have on their environment, pointing to lakefront lots that are cleared to make room for large homes, and how the fertilizer used on those lawns effects the health of the water.

“The lake is not just about boating,” she said, “it’s about maintaining a balance,” noting that some solutions are simple, like planting buffers between residential lawns and the lake.

Bowman also noted the plants in Chautauqua Lake are “problematic” but provide an important infrastructure.

“Part of the problem,” she explained “is that Chautauqua Lake is out of balance,” noting the high numbers of phosphorus and nitrogen in the water, to which she said “there is no Band-Aid. We have to get to the root of the problem.”

She noted that the presence of blue-green algae is a testament to that imbalance, and believes the algae is a much bigger problem than the weeds, reiterating the danger the algae presents.

At the end of the presentation, CLA president Paul Stage told the Post Journal that he believes herbicide spraying is “a terrible waste of precious economic resources. There was very little growth in the spray areas they have to deal with. They spent several hundred thousand dollars on this effort. We need to spend our money more wisely.”

Referring to the afternoon presentations, Stage said he hopes residents took away the idea “that we have a very healthy, dynamic living lake. Standing back and looking at the big picture, the plusses on Chautauqua Lake still outnumber the minuses.”