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The Long Game of Chautauqua Lake Conservation

The following was submitted as an op-ed to Chautauqua-area media outlets on June 1, 2018.

The herbicide permits granted to the Town of Ellery and other lake municipalities recently by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) to control weed growth in selected areas of Chautauqua Lake, and the process leading to the issuing of the permits, have raised significant concern among many regional citizens, including Chautauqua Institution and many of the 1,190 private property owners on the Institution grounds. Our concerns center on the general ecology and sustainability of the lake, including our dependence on it for drinking water, recreation and, more broadly, regional economic development. 

The Institution’s leadership team has closely followed and formally responded to the herbicide application process, including the Town of Ellery's application for Lead Agency Status and the related Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS). In order to do so in the most responsible way possible, we hired outside scientific experts and legal counsel to advise and support our engagement in this process. Our goal has been to become informed about the perspectives of the various Chautauqua Lake organizations and municipalities, to stay up to date on the NYSDEC’s own research and investments in lake care and management, and to advocate for a collaborative, scientifically supported long-term approach to lake care and management.

From our perspective as a lake management leader and participant, we have advocated directly to NYSDEC that the use of herbicides in Chautauqua Lake be approached only as part of a comprehensive lake and watershed management strategy, not as a short-term fix to what is in no way a short-term problem. The May 25, 2018, permits for herbicide application come with great assurance from NYSDEC that they will cause no public or ecological hazards and that the single allowed round of herbicide application will help to control the weed growth in select areas of Chautauqua Lake. Further, NYSDEC states that applying the herbicides now — no later than June 12 — will stop further weed growth, protect a key fish spawning time, and reduce the likelihood of Harmful Algal Blooms. NYSDEC officials have cited three other freshwater bodies in New York that have used similar herbicide treatment strategies with no negative impact on lake ecology, including the quality of drinking water and the safety of recreation activities.

We trust in the intention and knowledge of the NYSDEC, but will remain diligent. We are gratified that it has placed significant limits on not only the location and acreage covered by the permits, but also the timeframe of their application, stating firmly that the herbicide applications must take place no later than June 12. Our primary remaining concerns are:

  1. the lack of a long-term strategy for the management of Chautauqua Lake and its watershed, and, related to this, we oppose public funding for herbicide treatments that are not implemented as part of a comprehensive plan;
  2. the Town of Ellery SEIS, which is widely regarded by scientific experts as flawed and therefore cannot be used to justify future chemical applications in Chautauqua Lake;
  3. that the permitted herbicide treatments do nothing to control the Harmful Algal Bloom problem and may indirectly trigger more or longer HABs; and
  4. the conservation of the ecology of Chautauqua Lake, including its current use as a source for drinking water, as an important fish and wildlife habitat and for recreation.

Chautauqua Institution will continue to advocate for the long game of Chautauqua Lake conservation, an approach that is mirrored by recent legislation proposed by U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand in the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018. It’s an approach advocated in recent statements from the Village of Lakewood and the Chautauqua Lake and Watershed Management Alliance. In the meantime, we will also continue to closely monitor all regulations and actions, including any herbicide applications that may take place, to ensure the continued safety and sustainability of our regional community and its most precious natural resource.

Michael E. Hill
Chautauqua Institution

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