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How Much Time?

The value of Chautauqua Lake to the residents of the area in terms of beauty and recreation cannot be measured. But here is the situation now:

In the summer, a lakefront home at Lakewood was rented for three months. A few days after the tenant moved in, the wind filled a nearby small bay with drifting weeds which promptly began to rot. The tenant enjoyed a nice view of the lake but preferred to remain in the house with the doors and windows closed during the remainder of her stay, because of the stench created by the weeds.

In early spring in Burtis Bay, at the lower end of the lake, the property is beautiful. By midsummer the water is black with particles of decayed organic material, the neighborhood has a terrific odor, and a thick layer of heavy, rotting weeds extends out 50 feet or more from shore.

The weeds drift ashore in long tangled masses, soaked and very heavy. Energetic lakefront residents try to remove the weeds from their beaches as fast as they come in. It’s like shoveling sand in the desert, for as fast as an area is cleared it promptly fills in again.

Among the costly and devastating results of the “Chautauqua Lake Situation” are reduced property values, loss of tourist trade and subsequent loss to many area retail outlets. The stench has consummated any desire to reside at the lower lake for periods of either short or long duration.

With all the recent media coverage, this is beginning to sound like “old news.”

And it is.

Every word above is from a report about Chautauqua Lake that was developed by New York State in 1955.

Perhaps it is useful to read these old words to clarify that our perceptions are not always accurate. It is simply not true that the lake used to be pristine and now it is not. Since people have been building hotels and cottages and vacationing on Chautauqua Lake, we have had summers where the lake was clear, summers where the lake was congested with weeds and algae, and summers following a warm winter where the lake started out clear but became overgrown as the temperatures rose and the water stagnated.

Many lake organizations have worked diligently for years to develop effective strategies for lake improvement, and there is no doubt we’re moving in the right direction. But recently, their input has been largely ignored in favor of herbicide application. Supporters of herbicide use are frustrated and may be looking for a quick fix. In the long term, they may make matters worse by harming fish and wildlife and exacerbating toxic algal blooms.

Since 1955 — in my lifetime — half of all the species on the planet have gone extinct. We have seen major declines in insects, and in birds. The ice caps are melting; the polar bears in the Arctic are not feeding. Honeybees have been named the most important living beings on the planet, and they are endangered. Most of these changes are due to deforestation, our continued reliance on fossil fuels, and the use of pesticides and herbicides. In the context of these findings, it stuns me that Chautauqua County is undertaking a strategy to control weeds with broadly applied herbicides.

What are they thinking? By the time the harm is measured by outcome studies, it will be too late. Too late for the fish, the eagles, the osprey and the loons. We have to understand, as John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

And while we’re reminiscing, maybe we should remember these words from the old commercial: “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!”

Beth Peyton’s first book, Clear Skies, Deep Water: A Chautauqua Memoir, was published by SUNY Press in 2014. She lives in Bemus Point.

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