Want To Improve Chautauqua Lake? Focus on the Watershed!

Becky Nystrom, President, Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy
Melanie Smith, Chair, Chautauqua-Conewango Consortium, A Waterkeeper Alliance Affiliate

Chautauqua Lake is an old lake, rich in plant diversity and an abundance of living things. The shoreline waters host a well-established diversity of aquatic plants that support multiple natural communities, hold sediments in place, and provide food, oxygen, and critical habitat for countless creatures. All are woven together in an amazing web of interdependency, complexity, and connection. But our lake suffers from a pervasive problem of excessive weeds and unwanted, unsightly, and sometimes harmful and toxic algal blooms.

For many decades Chautauqua Lake has been the receptacle for the by-products of human activities in the watershed. This includes the nutrients in animal waste from farms, human waste, fertilizer, and eroded soils caused by development throughout the watershed. The phosphorus, nitrogen, and other nutrients introduced through these land use practices have contributed to today’s excessive weed and algae growth and harmful algal blooms (HABs). We must think of the nutrients and sediments in Chautauqua Lake not as the “causes” of our lake’s problems, but as the symptoms of a sick watershed. Our lake’s severe algae and plant growth problems result from a distressed system long in the making, and it’s urgent we acknowledge and address the root causes at work.

The bottom line is—we must quickly and effectively change the way we manage the lands in our watershed. According to the Trust for Public Land and American Water Works Association (2004), watersheds should be maintained in at least 60-70% forest and wetlands for clean, non-polluting waters to feed the lake to support improved water quality, wildlife and fisheries habitats, and human health and enjoyment. We must conserve as much of the remaining forest land as possible, protect remaining wetlands, and reforest and restore as much of the watershed as possible. Landscaping of residential and commercial areas must be re-considered, and roadway stormwater systems reconstructed to better absorb precipitation to recharge groundwaters and reduce the severe erosion dumping fresh soil into our waterways every year.

Because New York State declared the lake impaired for phosphorus (based on EPA standards) in 2012, a document titled “Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL)” was issued to provide thresholds for various sources of phosphorus. What is rarely discussed, however, are the costs of the needed environmental actions.

The TMDL states: “When lakes receive excess phosphorus, it “fertilizes” the Lake by feeding the algae.” We must opt for the most cost-effective environmental actions with the greatest capacity to reduce nutrients, preferably both phosphorus and nitrogen, reaching the lake. If an action, such as herbicide treatment, only makes the area look better, and does not address nutrient reduction, then those dollars are wasted. Making the reduction of nutrients the top priority directly cuts into the process that causes the unwanted algal blooms.  

Low-cost actions that can be taken by individuals to reduce nutrients abound; protect and retain our tree canopy, allow dead trees to remain, when safe, to retain their deep root systems, scoop the poop, mulch your grass clipping and leaves, avoid using lawn fertilizer routinely, allow no-mow zones to grow, plant a buffer or rain garden.
Actions taken by local governments and lake management officials should be held to the same nutrient-reduction standard. It is the local governments that can adopt and enforce stormwater runoff laws to keep more sediment and nutrients from reaching the lake. It is the local governments that can help support the mechanical harvesting of plants which removes the plant nutrients from the lake as opposed to treatment with herbicides which releases these back into the water column and sediments where they can contribute to algal blooms.

It’s worth noting that the species targeted by herbicide treatments – Curly-leaf pondweed and Eurasian watermilfoil – are Tier 4 invasives, meaning that, with the extent of their growth, they cannot be eradicated (Western New York Partnership for Invasive Species Management, or WNY PRISM). These species have been well-established for decades and are now providing services to the living lake communities. Herbicide treatments cannot “target” the Tier 4 species without also causing collateral damage to intermingled native species, including native, beneficial pondweeds and coontail. Financing a large-scale killing of native plants, either directly or indirectly, funds the reduction of the natural biodiversity of the region, including the foraging, spawning, and rearing areas of our world class and economically important muskellunge, walleye and bass fisheries.

We call on our local governments and Chautauqua Lake management efforts to hold watershed land conservation and enhancement efforts at a much higher priority. To truly address the root causes of nutrient loading in Chautauqua Lake, a pro-active, preventive approach is urgently needed to reduce the loss of watershed forests and wetlands, protect streams and stream corridors, control stormwater and erosion, and reduce sediment loading into the lake, including effective stormwater erosion control regulations. Every year in which local governments fail to adopt and enforce such laws means more sediment and pollution are reaching the lake and contributing more phosphorus to be released as “internal loading” each summer.

The sources of our lake’s problems emanate from the watershed. Unless we effectively reduce the flow of nutrients and sediments into the lake from our severely damaged watershed, the lake will incrementally get worse and its symptoms more expensive to treat. Protecting the quality of the water for this lake’s ecology, wildlife habitat, outstanding fisheries, Class A drinking water source, and watershed is a high moral obligation, to the benefit of our region’s economic, ecological, and social well-being.

Let’s work together to make sure that the watershed gets the appreciation, funding, energy, new laws, enforcement, and attention necessary to save and restore its forests and wetlands, and to heal its streams and shorelands delivering clean waters to Chautauqua Lake.


CWC Annual Meeting Attendees Learn How Trees & Forests in Protect Water Quality

Nearly 100 persons attended CWC's Annual Meeting on August 11th at the Chautauqua Harbor Hotel! Vince Cotrone, an award-winning Penn State Urban Forester, presented about the essential importance of trees in absorbing rainfall and pollutants in the landscape. Keeping forests intact in your watersheds and maintaining and restoring streamside forest buffers can significantly reduce runoff reducing soil erosion and reducing lake sedimentation. Fertile soil eroded from the watershed fuels abundant aquatic plant growth. He observed that the Chautauqua Mall property is "crying out for trees," recommending CWC and local governments seek infrastructure funding to plant trees on commercial sites and provide incentives for business owners to retrofit such sites with green infrastructure. This will help to intercept the pollutants and stormwater now running off such sites and directly into lake tributaries with no storage or treatment to remove a myriad of pollutants impacting the lake. The handout summarizing information in his presentation can be found at https://rb.gy/3r25zq. CWC will hold one or more follow-up webcasts with him on stormwater management to reduce lake pollution in upcoming months.

During the CWC business meeting, musician and County Legislator Bill Ward of Mayville was elected as to the board and Michael Jabot of Fredonia, Bill Locke of Ellery, Craig Seger of Lakewood, and Deb Trefts of Chautauqua were re-elected to the board, each for three-year terms.

Treasurer Bill Locke reported that CWC’s event revenues were seriously impacted in 2020, but due to receiving a federal PPP loan, CWC was able to keep its staff fully-employed and finish the last fiscal year with only a small deficit. He noted CWC has had a robust rebound in its grants, donations and event sponsorships in 2021 and would finish its fiscal year on September 30th in a strong financial position.

President Becky Nystrom and Executive Director John Jablonski outlined recent notable accomplishments: 112 LakeScaping consultations for lakeshore buffers and landscaping for wildlife and water quality; CWC assisting in the engineering design of the erosion control projects on Ball Creek for which N. Harmony is seeking $200,000 in State WQIP funding and CWC contributing to the preliminary design of a 1,200-foot long constructed wetland above the Save-A-Lot Plaza for which Lakewood is seeking $250,000 in State WQIP funding to construct to trap nutrients and sediments and protect Fairmount Ave and downstream properties from flooding and flood damage.

Mr. Jablonski also reported that CWC has 1,071 acres at 32 sites under its protection across the Chautauqua region and that more than 5,000 persons have signed in at CWC's preserves since March 2020—stating, "your CWC preserves are a great refuge for people as well fish & wildlife.”  He announced CWC is pursuing several land conservation projects, including at sites on Mud Creek, Goose Creek, Chautauqua Creek, Cheney Creek and more. He also announced that CWC is launching the Fish Hawks (osprey and eagles) & Steelhead Habitat Campaign to conserve habitats along Goose Creek feeding Chautauqua Lake and Chautauqua Creek feeding Lake Erie. Those who would like to make a donation in celebration of the CWC mission may donate at www.chautauquawatershed.org. Becky Nystrom thanked all who have generously supported this work over the past year.

CWC Signs County MOU

CWC's Board of Directors recently endorsed Chautauqua County’s Chautauqua Lake Memorandum of Understanding. CWC strongly supports good faith and cordial collaboration among our lake and watershed partners and seeks to continue working together to conserve and improve Chautauqua Lake watershed and in-lake conditions. We support objective, evidence-based science with which to guide management decisions that conserve and enhance the water quality, scenic beauty, and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands, and watersheds of the Chautauqua region, and recognize the critical importance of an economically and ecologically healthy Chautauqua Lake.


The CWC notes, however, our disappointment that the MOU fails to acknowledge the human land uses that continue to contribute significant sources of the phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediments to Chautauqua Lake which fuel excessive weed and algae growth, harmful algae blooms (HABs), and loss of lake depth. Each of the lake’s sub-watersheds should be maintained in at least 60-70% forest and wetlands for clean, non-polluting waters to feed the lake (Protecting the Source, The Trust for Public Land and American Water Works Association, 2004) which, in turn, will support improved Chautauqua Lake water quality, wildlife and fisheries habitats, and human health and enjoyment.


To truly address the root causes of nutrient loading in Chautauqua Lake, a pro-active, preventive approach is urgently needed to reduce the loss of watershed forests and wetlands, protect streams and stream corridors, control stormwater and erosion, and reduce sediment loading into the lake, including effective stormwater erosion control regulations, currently lacking. Every year in which local governments fail to adopt and enforce such laws means more pollution is reaching the lake and contributing more phosphorus cumulatively being released as “internal loading” each summer. And while the NYSDEC has regulatory responsibility over the waters of Chautauqua Lake, it does not regulate local land uses that contribute the nutrients and sediments driving excessive plant and algae growth in the lake. That is primarily up to local municipalities, potentially augmented by the County through its human health protection jurisdiction. CWC encourages local governments to look to Lake George and the Finger Lakes and local land use regulations in other states for examples on how to better protect our precious water resources, now and long into the future.


CWC looks forward to continued participation in the Chautauqua Lake and Watershed Management Alliance and Chautauqua County Water Quality Task Force, and to ongoing and future collaborations with our lake and watershed conservation partners.


Annual Mother’s Day Wildflower Walk

Join us on Sunday, May 9th, for our annual Mother’s Day Wildflower Walk at the Bentley Nature Preserve!

This year, to help with social distancing, CWC is offering two group tours, the first starting at 1PM and led by local naturalist Jack Gulvin, and the second at 2 PM led by CWC Board President Becky Nystrom. The walks will follow the Pamela A. Westrom Wildflower Trail, where tour leaders will point out the numerous wildflowers and ferns typically encountered in the region in springtime.

Participants should dress for the weather and also wear footwear appropriate for the typical muddy conditions of a wooded wetland. Face masks are required for all participants. All other current COVID-19 safety protocols will also be followed.

Advance registration is required, and each group is limited to 15 people. A $5 donation per individual or $10 donation per family for non-CWC members is suggested.

Register online via Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/mothers-day-wildflower-walk-registration-151704073969. Or, if you prefer to register by phone, please contact Tracy at 716-664-2166, ext. 1001.

Find directions to the Bentley Preserve (on Bentley Avenue in Jamestown) here: https://goo.gl/maps/UFahbqJWoLFTncTP8

Read more about the Bentley Nature Preserve here: Bentley Preserve – Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy

Concerns About Herbicide Use in Chautauqua Lake

Several local municipalities have submitted applications to the NYSDEC for permits to apply the herbicides ProcellaCOR EC and Aquathol K on up to 529.4 acres and 345.5 acres respectively in 2021. Permit applications for Aquathol K have been requested to control curly-leaf pondweed between 4/19 and 5/19 and for ProcellaCOR EC to control Eurasian watermilfoil between 5/17 and 6/18. Both proposed chemicals kill beneficial and native aquatic plants in addition to the targeted “nuisance” plants. Some of CWC's nature preserves in Ellicott and Celoron with waterfront habitats may be directly impacted by the herbicide treatments by these municipalities. CWC has submitted a letter voicing this concern to the NYSDEC and urging careful protection of the ecology of our preserves, fisheries and wildlife and the ecology of the lake and its outlet. Read our full letter by clicking on the link below. 

CWC Letter to NYSDEC 2.23.21


From Top to Bottom and Back Again

From Top to Bottom and Back Again: Every inch of the watershed is in the lake….and the lake is in every inch of the watershed!

It has often been said amongst old hydrologists that the lake at the bottom of a watershed contains all that exists in that watershed, from the most distant ridge all the way down to lakeside gardens and lawns. 

A watershed is the basin-shaped piece of land with highpoints as its boundaries that slope down toward the lake. When it rains or snows, the whole 176-square mile Chautauqua Lake watershed collects water that flows downhill via 300 miles of streams into the 20-square mile lake. Along the way, the water carries with it everything it can move or dissolve – including soil, litter, pet waste, oil, road salt, pesticides and fertilizers. How we, our businesses, our towns, our county, and our state and federal governments manage the land above the lake is the Number One determinant of the lake's ecological health and its suitability for human activities. The use of every land parcel affects the health of the lake.

It's important to recognize the fact that Chautauqua Lake returns to us exactly what we give it. If we give it phosphorus and nitrogen, it will give us weeds and blue-green algae. If we give it road ditch run-off and let the banks of its tributary streams erode, it will give us less depth and a muddy bottom. If we replace its absorptive shoreline with concrete breakwaters, it will give us fewer spawning beds for fish and increase the likelihood of floods. These are natural laws – and laws that are not about to be challenged. At least not without consequences.

We have centuries of evidence and information to inform our choices. It’s worth asking ourselves which aspect of the watershed we appreciate most and why that might be so. Then follow up that answer with how to best protect that function. What one action can you or your community take to protect the lake? It almost certainly will come back to limiting harm to remaining shorelines, forests and stream flows from the top of the ridges all the way back down to lakeside. Once the insult or injury is in the lake itself, it is generally too late to do anything but try to mitigate a bad situation. In other words, prevention is truly the better part of proper treatment and protection of the lake. This precious resource, held in common by all the residents of the watershed and even farther afield, has a particular appeal and promise that it can only fulfill if the waters flowing into it carry mostly just water rather than water containing unpleasant pollution of other materials.

The Chautauqua Lake watershed is an integrated and interconnected system of forests, streams, wetlands, floodplains, and shorelands. Given the fact that the lake's shoreline is almost entirely developed, the most urgent management need is to save the few remaining wetland, shore and near-shore spaces for fish and wildlife. Lakeshore wetlands are among nature's most biologically diverse and productive places. Lakeshore plants hold the shore in place, protecting it against erosion from waves and ice. They provide breeding, nursery, food and cover for pan fish, game fish, amphibians, turtles, snakes, mammals, and waterfowl, including many animal species of economic value.

Whether the interest is in inherent value posed by aesthetically pleasing places or economic activity or valuation of lakeside properties, the health of the rest of the watershed is what elevates any of those interests.  From top to bottom and back again.

CWC Awarded State Grant for Cassadaga Lake Nature Park Improvements!

CWC has been awarded a $40,000 state grant for improvements at our Cassadaga Lakes Nature Park! The park, located on the old Route 60 just outside of Cassadaga, encompasses 77 acres of beautiful woods and wetlands at the head of the Cassadaga Lakes, including 26 acres of shoreland wetlands and 1,100 feet of natural shoreline.

The grant will allow us to make trail improvements, enhancing and connecting trails in the park with a parking area, as well as to install an entryway welcome kiosk and pavilion that will offer visitors shelter and information about the park. On the shoreline of Mud Lake, a wildlife observation blind will be constructed featuring an elevated platform and ramp for access. Gaps will be included in the blind’s walls facing the lake which will allow visitors to use binoculars to observe birds and other wildlife in and on Mud Lake.

The grant is funded from the New York State Conservation Partnership Program and New York’s Environmental Protection Fund. The NYSCPP is administered by the Land Trust Alliance, in coordination with the State Department of Environmental Conservation. There has been very strong community support for this project, with fifty families, individuals, businesses, foundations and organizations contributing $79,000 to this project to date. We thank State Senator George Borrello, Assemblyman Andy Goodell and Governor Cuomo for their support of this project and the New York State Conservation Partnership Program during this challenging time.

The use of parks and preserves has skyrocketed in 2020 as people choose to socialize safely outdoors and find peace in the beauty of nature. The CWC has registered over 1,300 persons using its preserves over the last nine months, and we anticipate that this site will become one of area’s most popular walking destinations. The completion of these improvements and the park opening are scheduled for summer 2021.

The Power of Trees & Leaves

By Carol Markham, CWC Conservationist

The dazzling colors of deciduous trees are upon us, freckling our landscapes with vivid shades of autumn. Meander down any country road or through your local neighborhood, and the hillsides and yards are ablaze with magnificent hues of red, yellow and orange. As colder days approach, these leaves will dance, twirl and fall gracefully, garnishing our lawns with brilliant colors. To many, this spells w-o-r-k, but the benefits and beauty of trees and leaves in your yard outweigh the time and effort it takes for fall cleanup and winter readiness.

The environmental, economic and personal benefits of a yard dotted with trees are enormous to a homeowner and their surrounding community. In addition, with many of us experiencing the death of our native ash trees, we need to think about replacing what we have lost. Native trees increase property values and save homeowners money on energy costs. They help buffer noise pollution and can moderate local climates by providing shade and cooling our homes. Trees slow water runoff, thus preventing soil erosion into our streets and waterways. They store carbon and clean the air. Trees regulate temperature extremes, increase wildlife habitat and improve the land’s capacity to adapt to climate change. Phew! Who would have imagined the rewards we receive just by having trees in our yards! And we didn’t even mention the beauty and structure trees give to our landscapes! Even the most brilliant of painters could not capture the true beauty that our trees give to us this time of year.

With this splendor comes an explosion of color that eventually ends up on the ground. This color carpet is not only stunningly beautiful but, if managed properly, also adds free natural fertilizer to our lawns every fall. What a perfect scenario for feeding and nurturing our grass heading into the cold winter months! These leaves are wonderfully small pieces of free fertilizer that every homeowner should want to take advantage of. And the easiest way to do this is to mow and mulch them right into your lawn. Mulching mowers can shred unwanted leaves into tiny, organically-rich particles that will eventually decompose. These leaf particles add valuable nutrients back into the soil and improve water absorbency, resulting in a stronger, healthier lawn. This thin layer of mulched leaves can also help protect your lawn from harsh winter conditions, ensuring a healthy lawn next spring. Instead of removing this bountiful beauty with rakes and plastic bags, we should be reaping the benefits and nutrients they offer and give them back to our tired end-of-summer lawns.

So…plant a native oak, maple or birch…and enjoy the glory of its year-round benefits as well as its spectacular leaves. The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy would be happy to offer free assistance on selecting a tree and its best location in your yard. Just email Carol the Conservationist at carol@chautauquawatershed.org and schedule your yard consultation today! You, your yard, and your community will be thankful you did!