Our Precious Chautauqua Lake Needs Our Help

Chautauqua Lake is a haven for birds, fish and water plants. It is a delight for boaters, swimmers, fishermen and sightseers. Chautauqua County government studies tell us the lake provides monumental economic impact for the county but when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assesses lake water quality for the Federal Clean Water Act, Chautauqua Lake is considered impaired due to contamination from phosphates.

While living in Busti and working in Jamestown for 36 years, lake residents tell me there are too many weeds in the lake which impede motorboats, entangle swimmers legs and create foul smelling shorelines and occasional health hazards. Why are weeds so prevalent, and what can be done to reduce weed growth? Facts and opinions for this discussion were presented by Doug Conroe, Chautauqua Lake Association president, at a breakfast gathering I attended with five other retired local residents a month ago.

As recently as 300 years ago, when Native Americans inhabited the surrounding wooded hills and hollows, the lake was likely pristine. During the late 1700s white men settled on the lake. The lake provided easy access to drinking water and easy disposal of human sewage. As populations grew, the sewage load into the lake became greater. Farming added silt or dirt from plowed fields, phosphates and nitrogen chemicals from cow manure and in the last 100 years fertilizers to the lake after rain storms. The combination of human waste and agriculture chemicals produced high nutrient levels which fertilized lake weeds and algae yielding abundant growth. One common fertilizer available in garden shops is rated as 20-20-20 because it contains 20 percent phosphate, 20 percent nitrogen and 20 percent potash or potassium. Silt makes the lake shallower and allows sunlight to reach the bottom, thus promoting weed growth.

Today, treated residential sewage and water runoff from roads and parking lots contribute more nutrients and silt to the lake than farming. Bathroom and kitchen disposal wastes from lake communities are treated then returned to the lake. At the same time, some communities draw drinking water from the lake. Sewage treatment means solids are removed and bacteria are killed, but phosphates and nitrogen remain to overload nutrient levels in the lake. Residences not serviced by waste treatment systems use septic systems to treat home sewage. Doug Conroe informed me that while septic systems reduce solids and bacteria, the run off still contains phosphates and nitrogen which eventually enter the lake. Next year waste treatment plants around the lake will be required to remove phosphates and in five years nitrogen. Eventually, removal of pharmaceuticals in human waste will be addressed.

Last year heavy weed and algae growth decomposed near shoreline which allowed naturally occurring neurotoxin producing bacteria to feed and multiply. This prompted closure of several beaches on the lake. These toxins were capable of killing cats and dogs.

No organization oversees the lake. New York state is responsible for complying with the EPA directives but they have not acted. The Chautauqua County Watershed coordinator depends on the help from private organizations for sound ecological input and practical efforts. Eventually sewage treatment plants surrounding the lake can capture sewage and remove nutrients before discharging treated water back into the lake. Shorelines can be planted with native shrubs and trees to absorb rain water run off, silt and nutrients. Herbicides, now illegal, have been added to the lake in the past to kill weeds but these poison fish and other life. A herbivore (weed eating insect) was introduced into the lake to control milfoil weed.

Harvesting weeds, the least injurious to the lake, performed by the CLA has been the mainstay to reduce weeds. The CLA general manager, Paul Swanson, tells me that presently 36 full-time employees in three crews harvest weeds 10 hours a day, five days a week. The budget may reach $750,000 this year. Weeds can be composted for agriculture use. We are fortunate the CLA has taken action until universal modern waste treatment effect on the lake can be evaluated. A three-part video, “Improved Wastewater Management for Lakeshore Communities” will be available on Channel 5 and YouTube. Check it out.