Institution Applauds Chautauqua County Investment of $1 Million to Continue Chautauqua Lake Research
The Chautauqua County Legislature yesterday approved an investment of $1 million to continue research started in 2020 and sustained since then by investments of nearly $4 million from Chautauqua Institution. This new funding will enable the continuation of research by The Jefferson Project research teams that are helping Chautauqua County officials and regional lake organizations better understand and act upon the unique combination of environmental factors impairing Chautauqua Lake.
“The work of The Jefferson Project is informing mitigation efforts that will eventually save Chautauqua Lake,” said Michael E. Hill, Ed.D., President of Chautauqua Institution. “Chautauqua Lake will not survive unless we make the right decisions now. History will reflect on this time in the life of the lake and the collaborative investments and decision-making of County officials and lake organizations that collectively can reverse the downward trajectory of the Chautauqua region’s most important natural resource.”
The work of the Jefferson Project will ensure that limited resources are put to the best use by harnessing science to pinpoint not only the causes but also the solutions that exist to reverse the degradation of the lake. Current efforts underway to reverse the negative environmental conditions, most notably Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) and invasive weed growth, include watershed conservation, weed harvesting and carefully targeted herbicide applications.
The Jeﬀerson Project is a collaboration between Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, IBM Research and the Lake George Association that exists to collect and process massive amounts of data on freshwater bodies to create a new model for environmental monitoring and prediction. The project was originally founded in 2013 at Lake George, at the southeast base of New York’s Adirondack Park. Since its founding there, the results of Jefferson Project studies have led to countless public-private solutions that have reversed invasive weed species, reduced sediment loading and united what were disparate factions around a common approach to lake management. Its expansion to Chautauqua Lake marks the ﬁrst long-term branching out of the initiative.
The Jefferson Project researchers compile data using platform buoys, called vertical profilers, that are situated in selected locations in the lake to take measurements at increments from the surface of the water to the bottom of the lake. The funding from Chautauqua County will enable the expansion of this effort to tributaries that feed the lake. This is the next critical step in the vision to create a “smart lake,” in essence computerizing Chautauqua Lake, to allow for real-time monitoring and analysis leading to short- and long-term solutions.
“We have heard that many around the lake have ‘study fatigue’ after years of standalone studies of parts of the lake by various organizations and individuals. The Jefferson Project is not another study but rather a far-reaching and comprehensive approach to understanding the eco-system of the entire lake, not in a moment in time, but as it changes over time. It also creates a whole-lake context so that other research being done can be integrated into the bigger picture. This allows us to create dynamic responses that standalone studies have never been able to accomplish,” Hill said.
Researchers also use boats to conduct water sampling every two weeks. The data – which include weather, chemical composition, current movement, stream flow and food web structure — is fed into a model that provides a detailed portrait of the lake.
“The idea of all of this is to build a picture and model of how the lake actually functions,” said Harry Kolar, the lead for the IBM research team on the project. “Everybody thinks it’s just a lake – water flows in and out – but there’s so much more going on.”
Until the introduction of The Jefferson Project, local leaders made key decisions regarding HABs and aquatic plant (macrophyte) growth without this detailed portrait. Chautauqua Lake was designated as impaired by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in the early 2000s because its phosphorus levels were, and continue to be, too high. The availability of nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen (also found at elevated levels in Chautauqua Lake) spurs the growth of both HABs and aquatic vegetation. Annual herbicide applications mainly in the south basin to target macrophytes in key recreational areas are a recent development, resuming in 2017 after decades of no herbicide use.
“Chautauqua Institution wants to continue to invest in this research, but we know we can’t accomplish the full vision alone,” Hill said. “This investment by the legislature and the leadership of the County Executive are welcome signals of the County’s enthusiasm and support for this critical work. I am grateful for Chautauqua County’s leadership in taking this important stand for the future of Chautauqua Lake.”
Hill said the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees prioritized seed investments of nearly $4 million in The Jefferson Project research to ensure the Institution is an active, critical part of the solution for the lake. The Institution is seeking additional financial support for this work from private and public sources.
More About Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs)
Both Lake George and Chautauqua Lake have been identified by New York State as priority waterbodies as part of an initiative to manage Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) — colonies of algae that grow rapidly and can produce toxins that are dangerous to humans and animals to consume. Both Chautauqua Lake and Lake George are important recreational lakes that support their local economies, but each stands on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of severity of HABs. While Lake George experienced its ﬁrst HAB in recent years, HABs have been a reality of summers on Chautauqua Lake for decades. Doing comparative research between the two lakes, which have similar stressors but operate diﬀerently as freshwater systems, can provide important context for the data and provide an idea of where both lakes are heading and how possibly to combat the causes of HABs.
HABs pose a generally low risk to people, especially when officials can inform the community about which areas to avoid when swimming. Though HABs have the potential to cause severe human health issues, symptoms are not typically life-threatening for healthy adults. They pose a higher risk to pets, which may accumulate toxins on their fur while swimming and consume them once they are bathing themselves. In Chautauqua Lake, HABs are typically found at higher concentrations in the south basin, where, with an average depth of 19 feet, water movement is more likely to churn nutrient-rich bottom sediments, spurring algal growth. Herbicides have also been more heavily applied in the south basin, eradicating plant communities and potentially changing plant-algae interactions by opening sediment to more disturbance.
About Chautauqua Institution
Chautauqua Institution is a community on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in southwestern New York state that comes alive each summer — and year-round through the CHQ Assembly online platforms — with a unique mix of fine and performing arts, lectures, interfaith worship and programs, and recreational activities. As a community, we celebrate, encourage and study the arts and treat them as integral to all of learning, and we convene the critical conversations of the day to advance understanding through civil dialogue.
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