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Chautauqua Lake Advocates Learn from the Lake George Experience

In order to benefit from the lake and watershed conservation experience of another lake community in New York, Chautauqua Lake stakeholders including representatives of Chautauqua Institution, SUNY Fredonia, and Chautauqua County government earlier this month visited Lake George, New York, where an innovative new model for lake and watershed management is working to save and maintain one of New York’s most famous lakes. Lake George has faced similar environmental concerns as Chautauqua Lake and most of New York’s fresh waters, including the negative impacts of human activity in its watershed and infestations of aquatic invasive species.

The Chautauqua group on Oct. 10 spent a full day with the leaders and researchers of the Jefferson Project, a public-private partnership that uses sound, validated science to spur decisions that have greatly improved the lake’s health and water quality.

The Chautauqua County delegation to Lake George included Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill, Vice President of Operations and Campus Planning John Shedd and Board of Trustees Vice Chair Dorothy Trefts, an IBM executive; Chautauqua County Executive George Borrello, Legislator Pierre Chagnon (also representing the Chautauqua Lake and Watershed Management Alliance), Director of Planning and Community Development Don McCord, and Watershed Coordinator Dave McCoy; and Dr. Courtney Wigdahl-Perry, assistant professor of biology at SUNY Fredonia.

Hill said the purpose of the trip was to see and learn about a successful model for lake conservation that might inform future actions and initiatives concerning Chautauqua Lake.

“It was an honor to share this experience with so many of our county neighbors, with such a sense of shared urgency for saving Chautauqua Lake,” Hill said. “Chautauqua Institution has long been a proponent of a comprehensive, environmentally sound, long-term strategy for maintaining Chautauqua Lake, and it was invigorating and affirming to see such disparate stakeholders creating and basing actions upon a foundation of universally accepted, sound science. The technology at work on Lake George is incredible.”

The Jefferson Project — a partnership of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, IBM Research and the Fund for Lake George — has created a new model for environmental monitoring and prediction using cutting-edge technology, analytics and science. With a network of some 500 sensors tracking water quality and movement throughout the Lake George watershed, researchers since 2013 have gathered massive amounts of data, measuring an array of variables related to weather and water runoff, quality and circulation. This “high-resolution view” of the Lake George’s ecosystem provides knowledge and prediction models that enable informed decisions on how to protect it. Jefferson Project leaders believe their efforts can be a blueprint to preserve other important lakes, rivers and bodies of fresh water in New York and throughout the world.

The Chautauqua County group’s day began with a visit to Data Visualization Lab at RPI’s Darrin Fresh Water Institute for an introduction to the technology of Jefferson Project, with representatives from the project’s partners: Rick Relyea, RPI chair of biological sciences and director of the project; IBM fellow Harry Kolar; Eric Siy, executive director of The Fund for Lake George; and Rachael DeWitt, executive director of the Skaneateles Lake Association. (Skaneateles Lake is the site of a second Jefferson Project pilot program; in late 2017, researchers installed a custom-designed robotic sensing platform, and began collecting data just prior to an early-August harmful algal bloom, or HAB.) In this session, Jefferson Project leaders demonstrated the sophisticated tracking and modeling they are able to conduct based on the sensor data.

“The Jefferson Project researchers’ only purpose is to conduct research and provide data and predictive modeling tools, not to provide recommended solutions to the problems, which was an important and interesting takeaway for me,” Shedd said. “It’s about purely the development of unbiased scientific data. The Fund for Lake George then uses this data, along with their own scientists’ conclusions, to prioritize projects or deeper research to address specific problems.” (In one instance, when the Jefferson Project research indicated heightened chloride levels as an increasing issue affecting Lake George’s health, the Fund for Lake George put forth a series of recommendations to watershed municipalities on how to reduce road salt usage during winter snow removal.)

In the afternoon, the Chautauqua group met with Siy and other representatives of The Fund for Lake George along with leaders of local municipalities to learn how parties with different and sometimes conflicting priorities forged a cooperative political environment in their approach to caring for Lake George, which serves as the centerpiece of the region’s $2 billion annual tourism economy. The Fund’s “Legacy Strategy” calls for a unified, generational response to threats to the lake’s health, one that fuses environmental and economic imperatives.

“It was inspiring for me to see a collaboration between government, nonprofit foundations, private-sector business and scientific research experts. The Jefferson Project has no agenda and makes no assumptions. It is purely data-driven science for all to use. It has been shared with all organizations and governments that are addressing issues in Lake George. What they have created is consistent, unbiased science so everyone is able to work together from the same data,” said County Executive Borrello. “It is yielding significant results for Lake George and the many local economies that rely on it.” 

To cap their day, the Chautauqua group visited one of the lake’s six boat inspection and washing/decontamination stations to discuss the mandatory watercraft inspection program. The Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Program on Lake George is the only mandatory boat inspection and decontamination program in the eastern United States, requiring that trailered boats be inspected, and decontaminated if necessary — both at no charge to the owner — before entering the lake’s waters. Implementing the inspection program required broad buy-in from stakeholders: it was created through a Memorandum of Understanding among municipal governments bordering Lake George, an MOU forged by the Fund for Lake George’s S.A.V.E. (Stop Aquatic inVasives from Entering) Lake George Partnership of municipal leaders, conservation groups and researchers. About one in every six of the 10,900 vessels inspected in 2017 required decontamination, according to a recent Lake George Park Commission report, which also noted that no new invasive species were detected in Lake George in the inspection program’s first four years.

Hill said the trip made him excited about the prospects for Chautauqua Lake in the near-term, if a Jefferson Project-like approach can be implemented.

"I am both optimistic and energized by the progress the Jefferson Project team has made in just five years,” Hill said. “After our day in Lake George, I’m even more hopeful that sustainable solutions to the issues affecting Chautauqua Lake are not as far off as we may think. With a combination of funding, technology and strong leadership basing decisions on sound shared data and science, we can do the generational work of returning Chautauqua Lake to a more natural condition and ensuring its viability and sustainability as the beating heart of our region’s ecology and economy.”

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