Chautauqua Lake’s weed problem has fueled community controversy


Critics of the state's herbicide program for the lake contend that the chemicals have damaged the ecosystem. But others called the program a success at removing invasive weeds that have been the subject of complaints for years.


Chautauqua Lake is sick.

Harmful algal blooms have plagued the lake for years and thick beds of invasive weeds have made boating and swimming a challenge.

To make matters worse, when the weeds die they leave behind a terrible odor.

Those who live on the lake complained to public officials, including George Borrello, who at the time was the Chautauqua County executive, but is now a senator for that region.

They wanted local and state officials to act, and they did.

The method of choice is to apply herbicides into the lake each spring.

“We do not want a swamp, and Chautauqua Lake will never be a swimming pool,” Borrello said.

But is this the right step?

Not everyone agrees, and the state’s decision to use herbicides has stirred up quite a controversy.

Some residents filed a lawsuit to stop the permitting of the herbicides. Then, after the first season of applying herbicides, two independent studies contradicted one another on the results.

One concluded that the herbicides were an overall success.

The other study found that the herbicides did indeed kill off the invasive weeds, but also destroyed critical native water plants that help sustain the world-class fishery.

Mike Sperry, a licensed state fishing guide who owns a boat and tackle store in Lakewood, has fished the lake for decades.

Sperry said he saw a drastic change in the lake’s ecosystem. Water plants in the shallower south basin had practically disappeared, and so did some of the fish.  

“Especially last fall, guys coming in saying what happened to the weed beds?” Sperry said.

“We have this great fishery and a lot of money is spent on the fishery. We hate to see it collapse.”

In 2012, the state Department of Environmental Conservation put the lake on a pollution diet to reduce phosphorous and other nutrients from runoff entering the lake. Those nutrients fuel algal blooms and growth of the invasive weeds.

But those efforts have not succeeded. In fact, Sperry and other residents said one of the largest algal blooms appeared in the lake this past summer.

Borrello tried to cut through the controversy by crafting a memorandum of understanding with most of the stakeholders on how to address the lake’s problems. The agreement was that they would take a balanced approach based on science.  

The DEC said it reviewed at least six different reports, models and policies to make its decision, including one by SOLitude Lake Management, the firm that is paid to spread the herbicides into the lake, which critics saw as a conflict.

In 2019, The towns of Ellery, North Harmony, and Ellicott, as well as the villages of Celeron and Lakewood received permits to apply the herbicides Aquathol K (Dipotassium Salt of Endothall) and Navigate (Butoxyethyl Ester of 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic Acid) in certain areas of Chautauqua Lake. The goal is to control the invasive water plant species Eurasian Watermilfoil and Curly-leaf Pondweed.

The DEC assured critics that the herbicides would not have a significant adverse impact to native vegetation, based off the science reviewed by the agency.

“The timing of the pesticide treatments allows these herbicides to selectively target invasive species,” the DEC said in a prepared statement.  

SOLitude Lake Management and Senator Borrello believe that the herbicides had an overall positive impact on the lake.

Glenn Sullivan, a certified lake manager for SOLitude, said herbicides were used in only 3 percent of the 17-mile-long lake.

Sullivan said a third-party report by Princeton Hydro concluded that the herbicide applications succeeded in removing invasive weeds with minimal impact to native water plants.

“By all measures, that treatment was a success and water quality and aquatic plant assessments completed in mid-June by a third-party support that,” he said.

“Unfortunately, lake conditions changed over the course of the summer, as was reflected in the plant survey conducted by Racine-Johnson four months after treatment. Algae blooms have been an issue on the lake for many years and there is little evidence that the herbicide treatment contributed to this recurring problem in 2019.”

That Racine-Johnson report he refers to was done by Robert L. Johnson, on behalf of the Chautauqua Lake Association, an organization that is against using herbicides in the lake.

Johnson found that the herbicides did remove the invasive weeds, but also killed off many native plant species. His survey found sections of the lake bare of native lake plants that are critical for spawning fish.

“Precisely, it is a warning that Chautauqua Lake, a large shallow lake has growing aquatic plants essential for a healthy freshwater ecosystem providing a habitat for insects, small fish, large game fish and stakeholders that is desirable for all,” Johnson told News 4 Investigates. 

“Attempting to temporally remove a non-native plant, but in turn you remove most native plants at the same time is not desirable and has profound negative effects on the larger desirable ecosystem.”

Sperry said Johnson’s report hit the nail on the head based off his own observations. Sperry said he would like to see the DEC limit the amount of herbicides and review more data and science before moving forward.

“That [Johnson] report pretty much coincides exactly with what I witnessed, and a lot of other people that use the lake witnessed,” Sperry said.

Jane Conroe said the debate is not about whose study is right or wrong.

“This entire series of events from first DEC permit to this fall’s south basin devastation is based on data from SOLitude that was taken incorrectly and was not analyzed correctly,” Conroe said.

“And then when the normal checks and balances system of the government keeping an eye on the rules for issuing permits is shredded, the DEC just did their job, and issued permits.”

Community members filed an Article 78 lawsuit in an attempt to stop the treatments, but they lost in court.  

“In 2019, it was free sailing to get permits from DEC and devastate the south basin,” Jane Conroe said. 

The CLA regularly receives grant funding for its work from various entities, including Chautauqua County, foundations, several local towns and villages and fundraising efforts. The group’s annual budget for 2020 will top $1 million – most of which goes to salaries.

Not everyone agrees with her, or her husband Doug, who runs the CLA and maintains the lake with specialized equipment that cut down the invasive weeds like a motorized lawn mower boat.

“The people that were very pro-herbicide said that’s not enough and the people that were against herbicides said it was too much,” Borrello said.

“We went 25-plus year without ever using herbicides in Chautauqua Lake and we’ve had more beach closures in previous years where herbicides were not used. I’m not sitting here saying we should use more herbicides, less herbicides. I’m saying that we need to have a number of tools in our toolbox.”

The DEC said in a prepared statement that it is aware of the contradicting reports prepared for Chautauqua Lake. The agency in the process of evaluating those reports.

“The health of Chautauqua Lake is a top priority of DEC,” the agency said.

“Preliminary analysis revealed there was a noticeable decline in vegetation in the herbicide treatment zones – in both invasive Eurasian watermilfoil and curlyleaf pondweed – as well as some native vegetation, following the application of the herbicide. The herbicide treatments are designed to target the non-native invasive plants. An evaluation remains underway by DEC.”

Meanwhile, a path toward consensus among the stakeholders appears to be as cold as the ice on the lake these days.

The DEC said Thursday that it has not permitted any herbicide treatments for the lake this year and it has not received any permit applications.

Conroe said she hopes the DEC takes a more serious look at science-based data before considering any further treatments.  

“A repeat in 2020 is what we are trying to stop, and now maybe even the DEC realizes what they’ve done,” Conroe said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the CLA filed the Article 78. Community members actually filed the Article 78 in an attempt to stop the herbicide program.

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