Living Lawns or Pesticide Peril?

By Becky Nystrom, CWC President

Springtime is here, and the backyard beckons. Our lawns and landscapes grow more lush, lovely and greener with each new day. But green is not necessarily “green” from an environmental standpoint, especially when it comes to lawns.

While America’s turf collectively covers an area the size of Michigan, most of these mowed and manicured spaces are biologically barren, offering little of value to wildlife. Unless a diversity of wildflowers, native grasses, “weeds,” woody shrubs and hedgerows are allowed to grow there, beneficial bees, wasps, beetles, bugs and spiders find it difficult to complete their life cycles, and in turn, so too do songbirds, frogs, bats and other wild creatures dependent upon them. Native species especially suffer. Nesting, resting, feeding and nursery areas for wild things become fragmented and marginalized, and nature’s rhythms are disturbed and disrupted. And as humans labor intensively to manage, mow and tend their beloved lawns, fumes, noise, fertilizers and pesticides pollute the air, land and water, at great cost to people and nature alike.

Worst of all are the pesticides, which are poisons intentionally designed to impair and kill, and which harm beneficial species in addition to those targeted.  Homeowners apply some hundred million pounds of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides to their lawns and landscapes each year, often in the form of “weed and feed” products, and the trend is on the increase. Heavy application in suburban lawns and gardens far exceeds that for other land areas in the U.S., including agricultural lands. Ironically, lawns most heavily managed with chemicals, such as golf courses, tend to have the most serious pest problems, since the “pesticide treadmill” leads to resistant strains of aggressive, often non-native pests, while decimating beneficial species and natural biological controls. Pesticides can also drift into our homes and contaminate indoor air and surfaces with toxics. And water, that precious resource for all life, is being polluted at unprecedented rates. Studies by the U.S. Geological Survey show that 2,4-D is the number one “weed and feed” herbicide most frequently detected in streams and shallow ground water throughout the country and that 56% of streams contain one or more pesticides at concentrations exceeding federal standards.                               

Of the 30 most commonly used lawn and landscape pesticides identified by the EPA, nearly all have potential for serious impacts on human health, with special risk to infants and children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. According to Health Impacts of 30 Commonly Used Lawn Pesticides (, 17 are possible or known carcinogens, 11 are associated with birth defects, 19 are linked with reproductive problems, such as reduced fertility and low sperm counts, 24 can cause liver or kidney damage, 14 are neurotoxic, impairing the nervous system, 18 are suspected or known endocrine (hormone) disrupters and 25 are sensitizers and/or irritants associated with asthma, inflammation and

allergic reactions.

While more research is needed, troubling findings are emerging. A National Cancer Institute study reports that household and garden pesticide exposure increases the risk of childhood leukemia nearly sevenfold. Dogs whose owners use 2,4-D lawn products are at higher risk for canine malignant lymphoma and bladder cancers. Studies by the American Cancer Society reveal increased human risk for non-Hodgkins lymphoma in association with pesticides such as mecroporp (MCPP) and glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup®, extensively used on lawns and agricultural lands alike). The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer recently concluded that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. Dicamba, 2,4-D, and MCPP (often found together as Trimec®), and glyphosate are known respiratory irritants that can inflame skin and mucous membranes, trigger asthma and cause coughing, nausea, and vomiting. Infants exposed to weed-killers within their first year of life are 4.5 times more likely to develop asthma by the age of five. Many lawn pesticides are estrogen-mimicking endocrine disruptors, and exposure can increase miscarriage and breast cancer risk in women and interfere in reproductive development in males.

Beyond human health, pesticides harm wildlife, including honeybees, butterflies, ants, earthworms, ladybugs, songbirds and other beneficial creatures. They also threaten tiny soil microbes so critical to nutrient recycling, decomposition and the natural fertility of the earth. Additional impacts occur when heavy rains and erosion wash these toxics far downstream, leading to contamination of lakes, rivers and drinking water supplies. Of the 30 pesticides noted earlier, 19 have been detected in groundwater, 20 have the potential to leach into drinking water supplies, 30 are toxic to fish and other aquatic life, 22 are toxic to birds, 29 are toxic to bees, 14 are toxic to mammals and 11 have the potential to disrupt developmental pathways in numerous organisms from frogs to fish and reptiles.

Let’s stop this craziness. There are healthier, more life-sustaining ways to create lovely green landscapes and support wildlife and enhanced environmental quality at the same time. For help creating non-toxic or less-toxic lawns and healthy backyard habitats, contact the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy, Cornell Cooperative Extension or a local organic landscaping services. An abundance of excellent information may also be obtained at the Coalition for Pesticide-Free Lawns at (Lawns and Landscapes), (The Dark Side of Lawns) and National Wildlife Federation’s (Garden for Wildlife).

A Special Message from CWC

Dear CWC Friends and Supporters,

On behalf of the CWC Board of Directors and Staff, we wish you health and safety during this COVID-19 time of concern and uncertainty as well as peace and resilience in the midst of it all.

During this unprecedented and altered season, we are reminded of what is most important in our lives – the health and well-being of our loved ones and a healthy, sustainable, and safe environment. We are also reminded how very grateful we are for each of you, our members and supporters, and wish to thank you for your dedication to our shared mission of preserving and protecting the water quality, scenic beauty, and ecological health of the lakes, streams, and watersheds of our region. Be assured that while this coronavirus crisis brings new and difficult challenges, CWC resolves to successfully navigate these waters and continue our conservation education, technical assistance, and land conservation work while abiding by the New York State Department of Health and CDC COVID-19 safety protocols to protect our staff, families, and the public.

More than ever, we encourage you to seek what is beautiful and good. Our thousand-plus acres of preserves ( remain open for you to explore and enjoy (using social distancing, of course!) from sunrise to sunset, and they await your visit. The gifts of nature found in our woodlands, wetlands, meadows, and lakeshores promise refreshment, renewal, and healing for body, mind, and spirit. Walk the trails…take your children fishing…launch your kayak…meander among the wildflowers…and seek the joy and serenity of nature amidst our chaotic and crazy world.

Please let us know if you have questions or concerns or if we can assist you in any way. Because we are conducting our work remotely for the foreseeable future, the best way to reach us is by e-mail to or to a specific staff person using the format of (e.g. You may also call the office at 716-664-2166 and leave a message. We will respond as soon as possible. Please note that, using proper safety and social distancing protocols, and as we are able, we intend to:

  • continue providing technical assistance on landscaping for water quality, stormwater management and habitat enhancement on lands owned by families, businesses, organizations, and the public; 
  • remotely offer conservation staff site evaluations and guidance on healthy lawn care practices, improving yards for capturing and filtering stormwater via buffers, swales, and raingardens, and/or for creating habitat for pollinators and wildlife; 
  • continue to steward and protect our preserves, along with the biodiversity they sustain and the hydrological and ecological gifts they provide;
  • conserve and restore lands with collapsing stream banks and severe erosion to arrest the thousands of tons of soil entering our lakes and fueling excessive plant growth; and
  • continue identifying and conserving woodlands and wetlands which capture, store, filter, and deliver clean waters to our lakes, streams, and drinking waters downstream.

CWC is thankful for your partnership in our work to conserve the landscapes, habitats and waters that make the Chautauqua County a special place in which to live and recreate – a refuge for humans and wildlife alike! With your help, we will continue delivering conservation activities and stewardship of our beautiful preserves for many years to come. Please consider a donation to assist us through these very challenging times, and thank you so much for your support!

With warm regards,

Becky Nystrom, Board President, and John Jablonski III, Executive Director

Lessons from the Lake: Making Sense of the Science

By Rebecca Nystrom, CWC President


If only Chautauqua Lake, an ecological and economic treasure in our midst, could speak. How might we better understand and steward its complex ecosystems upon which so much aquatic life depends, while thoughtfully addressing the ongoing challenges of excessive plant growth, harmful algal blooms, and newly introduced invasive species? The lessons from the lake are knowingly complex and deserve our attention.


We know our lake is an old lake, rich in plant diversity and an abundance of living things. We know its “underwater gardens” are the spawning and nursery beds for bass, muskellunge, bluegill, and sunfish, and the basis for our famous warm water fishery. Nymphs of mayflies, damselflies, and dragonflies crawl among the leaf blades, feasting on tinier insects, while larvae of moths, caddisfly, and weevils forage upon tender buds and feathery foliage. Little things are eaten by bigger things, and all are woven together in an amazing web of interdependency, complexity, and connection. Beyond their importance to the food web, rooted plants release oxygen, stabilize the sediments, and reduce resuspension of silt and nutrients, all significantly improving water quality.

We know the photic zone, where light penetrates the water column, is home not only to obvious lake plants, but also to innumerable tiny green dancers, floaters, and clingers known as phytoplankton, or “algae.” Interestingly, “blue-green algae” aren’t really algae at all, but rather a form of aquatic bacteria known as “cyanobacteria.” In plant-dominated lakes such as Chautauqua, most algae and cyanobacteria are normal residents serving as microscopic oxygenators and food-producers of open waters.


And yet…increased nutrient loading from urbanization of the watershed, erosion, loss of natural shorelines and buffered stream banks, poor lawn-care practices, and warming waters have led to plant-clogged waterways, unhappy humans, and conflicting ideas on solutions. Overgrowths of algae form unsightly and smelly surface scums. More insidiously, harmful algal blooms occur with greater frequency, some producing liver and nervous system toxins dangerous to humans, pets and aquatic creatures alike.


For decades, the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy has strived to conserve and heal our watersheds to enhance the quality of our local waters over the long term. Our work encourages landowners, municipalities, and others to employ lake-friendly landscaping practices, construct erosion control systems, and install vegetated stream buffers, swales, and rain gardens to intercept pollutants before they flow downstream. We have protected over 1,000 acres of wooded wetlands, streambanks, shorelands, and other natural areas which absorb and filter rainfall and stormwater, reducing downstream nutrient loading and sedimentation which otherwise fuel excessive weed and algae growth in our waterways.


Recent attempts to eradicate the long-naturalized Eurasian watermilfoil and curly-leaf pondweed via herbicides in Chautauqua Lake have brought clashing viewpoints and confusing messaging. Alarming evidence of harm to our lake’s south basin ecology has caused deep concern and dismay over the apparent collateral damage from the narrowly-informed “quick-fix” chemical approach. Can’t we do better? What lessons may be learned?


Comprehensive scientific research by Robert L. Johnson of Racine-Johnson Aquatic Biologists (2019 Status of Chautauqua Lake’s Aquatic Macrophyte Community Determined by a Lake Summer/Early Fall Survey and Estimates of the Associated Invertebrate Community) warns that the ecological balance of the lake’s lower south basin may now be at risk. We should listen to the science. We hope that the Region 9 State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) will listen.


Mr. Johnson is a highly respected scientist who has studied the aquatic plants of Chautauqua Lake, and the tiny insects that consume them, for eighteen consecutive years. His Racine-Johnson Point Intercept-Rake Drag plant sampling method is recognized as the industry standard. His methodology has been endorsed by the NYS DEC and has provided the invaluable long-term data that has guided plant management decisions by the Chautauqua Lake Association (CLA) since 2002. The entirety of his reports and all conclusions are solely the work of Racine-Johnson. He is an award-winning member, former director, and past president of the Northeast Aquatic Plant Management Society and is widely recognized for his professional contributions towards improved understanding of the ecology of non-native species Eurasian watermilfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum) and Hydrilla. He has served for many years as an independent third-party scientific herbicide-monitoring consultant for the DEC and other lake associations throughout New York State.


Compared to his May 2019 survey and previous years of sampling in the southeast end of Chautauqua Lake, Johnson’s 2019 mid-September survey revealed only barren sediment and unprecedented absence of nearly all aquatic plants. His report warned that these areas were in critical decline, likely linked to the 2,4-D and endothall herbicides applied to the 388 south basin acres in May 2019. Reports by seasoned fishermen using marine sonar concurred that nearly all traditional south basin weed lines were lost and replaced with thick algal blooms persisting into late fall.


An earlier and very limited third-party monitoring report by Princeton-Hydro, contracted by the Chautauqua Lake and Watershed Management Alliance, failed to identify the more widespread, longer-term outcomes documented by Johnson. Its researchers, however, did note that “total biomass…decreased markedly at the treatment sites,” and documented evidence of “potential herbicide drift and resultant reduction in nontarget plant biomass” approximately 7-14 days after treatment. Because both herbicides used are known to damage plants many weeks or months after being introduced into the water column, Princeton-Hydro’s one-month study could not possibly capture those longer-term consequences revealed by the Racine-Johnson work.


And while the Princeton-Hydro report did not address algae, the Fall 2019 Racine-Johnson report expressed concern that cyanobacteria and HABs were visually extensive and worsened as one proceeded south, consistent with herbicide application areas. It warned that the wholesale loss of rooted aquatic plants from the littoral zone could push the shallow south basin of Chautauqua Lake from a stable macrophyte-dominated state toward a turbid and undesirable algal-dominated one, with loss of our critical warm water fishery and increased risk of algal scums, cyanobacteria, and toxic HABs.


So much is at stake. There are enough lessons here to justify significant changes in future management decisions for Chautauqua Lake. Let’s listen to the science.


Rebecca Nystrom, President
Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy
413 North Main Street
Jamestown, New York 14701


Rebecca Nystrom is a local naturalist and retired JCC Professor of Biology, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from the University of Buffalo and SUNY Fredonia, respectively. She is a founding director of the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy, member of the Chautauqua Lake & Watershed Management Alliance Scientific Review and Advisory Committee, and member of the Macrophyte Management Strategy Technical Review Committee.  

(Chautauqua Lake photo by Jen Leister; Becky Nystrom photo by CWC)

CWC marks another successful golf tournament

The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy once again is celebrating a successful golf tournament. The 2019 Score on for the Lake! Pro-Am Golf Tournament, backed by presenting sponsor Snug Harbor Marina, was held at the Chautauqua Golf Club on June 24. More than 70 golfers hit the links to raise money and awareness for CWC’s mission to preserve and enhance the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams and watersheds of the Chautauqua region.

This year marked the 8th year that the CWC partnered with the Chautauqua Golf Club on the fundraiser. In that time, Score One for the Lake! has become CWC’s largest annual fundraiser. It has brought in more than $120,000 for the conservancy. For the past two years, Snug Harbor Marina has served as the presenting sponsor for the event.

This year’s tournament winners were Ryan Swanson, Gary Reeve, Rich Flanagan and Dan Filipi.

The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is grateful to all of the golfers, sponsors and volunteers who made the 2019 tournament a success! Those who are interested in sponsoring or participating in the 2020 tournament can contact the CWC at or (716) 664-2166.

CWC Volunteers Install Pedestrian Bridge at Bentley Nature Preserve

The Bentley Nature Preserve, off of Route 430 in Ellery, is now more accessible, thanks to a group of Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy volunteers and a grant from Cummins. The group of volunteers worked over several weeks to install a 40-foot metal bridge over the Chautauqua Lake tributary that flows through the site. The bridge allows for a loop path through the preserve, making it an ideal destination for walking or jogging.

The CWC ordered the bridge last fall, using part of the $27,000 Gateways to Nature grant awarded to the CWC by Cummins to make the conservancy’s 30 preserves more accessible to the public for recreation and education. Shortly after the bridge was ordered, the existing wooden bridge across the creek collapsed, disconnecting the loop trail. The new bridge was installed as soon as volunteers could clear a path and install posts this spring.

CWC Earns State Grant to Purchase Cassadaga Site

New York State has awarded a Parks Grant in the amount of $90,849 to the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy for the establishment of the 77-acre Cassadaga Lakes Nature Park on Upper Cassadaga Lake in the Town of Pomfret. The site contains important forest lands and wetlands that filter stormwater runoff to Upper Cassadaga Lake from 1,800 acres of roadways and farmland above the site. This grant, along with approximately $65,000 in funding already donated or pledged to the CWC for the project, will help with the approximately $120,000 in purchase costs for the site.

“We were very excited to learn of the State’s $90,849 grant to CWC to purchase the property for a nature park on 77 acres along Route 60 on Upper Cassadaga Lake,” said CWC Executive Director John Jablonski III. “Through the Cassadaga community campaign effort, community support for this has been wonderful. Cassadaga-area organizations, Chautauqua County Executive George Borrello and the legislature all were instrumental in this grant application process, as well as in securing other funds for the project.  In addition to the State grant, more than $65,000 has been raised locally to support this project from foundations, families and organizations.”

Plans for the park include walking trails, a picnic area, observation towers and blinds to allow for year-round recreation. The CWC will continue its capital campaign for the park, which kicked off in November with a goal of $200,000 to fully fund all of the planned amenities for the site.

“We want the Cassadaga Lakes Nature Park to be a place where County residents and visitors can go to experience the beauty of nature — which is so beneficial to the human spirit — with a walk through the woods or a family picnic alongside a pretty pond,” Jablonski said. “This will be a place where children can catch tadpoles or just go play in the woods. Visitors to the park will be able to hike, cross-country ski, snowshoe, birdwatch, walk dogs and fish.”

The CWC anticipates closing on the land purchase in the summer of 2019, with the majority of access improvements to be constructed in spring and summer 2020 for a projected fall 2020 opening.