Stick to the rivers, lakes

Editor’s Note: This is the first of four articles on a debate. Candidates were given a series of four questions on pressing issues facing Chautauqua County one week ahead of time, and were given the opportunity to provide their answers in a closed, debate-style setting. The first question regards the candidates’ views on lakes and waterways, algal blooms and what new approaches might be necessary for lake and watershed management.

Chautauqua Lake is a big part of the county, both literally and figuratively, with tourism and as a natural resource, as noted by both candidates during the debate. While their answers differed between the two, George Borrello, Republican candidate, and Mike Ferguson, Democratic candidate, acknowledge the importance in the conditions of lakes in Chautauqua County.

MIKE FERGUSON – “EXECUTE THE SOLUTION”

Ferguson said he believes that new approaches are necessary, and relates to leadership and experience.

“We’ve worked for over 25 years to try to change the lake, there’s been tremendous efforts — but you can’t stop Mother Nature by any means,” he said. “We can attempt to manage Mother Nature, and I think we can do a little bit better. It’s time to take another approach.”

Ferguson said the solution to the lake issues requires leadership which will mean making decisions and sticking to a plan. He said he believe it is also important to have a “friendly relationship” with New York state. Likewise, once the solution is found, finding funding and consistency is necessary. He said there have been improvements coming with planning of the solution, but now it is time to “execute the solution,” he said.

“The lakes are too important to both ends of the community to be a political football or to be budget pawns,” Ferguson said. “I’ve spent 10 years on Chautauqua Lake now, I understand the concerns, I understand the needs for a cure, and I understand that it stands for 24-26 percent of our tax base.”

Lakes and waterways will be a top priority for his administration, Ferguson said.

The solution may not be popular with everyone, and options such as the use of chemicals on the lake or harvesting of weeds have been talked about. Ferguson said he was aware that the county fell about $100,000 short which was able to be found, but he believes it is important to make sure the projects are fully funded in the winter so that “come spring, we make sure we move forward with what the plan is.”

GEORGE BORRELLO – “ADDRESS THE DISEASE”

Borrello said he has spent a lot of time on lakes and waterways, especially as a founder of the Lake Erie Management Commission. The county has also invested a lot of time and money into the lakes and waterways in Chautauqua County, he said.

“Here’s the problem: whether it’s cutting the weeds or killing the weeds, that is doing absolutely nothing to address the harmful algal blooms,” Borrello said. “The problem is this: we’ve been focused on treating the symptoms and not treating the disease. The disease exists in the tributaries leading into Chautauqua Lake and Findley Lake. The disease exists in the nearly 50 percent estimated failing septic systems around Chautauqua Lake and Findley Lake.”

Another factor is that some homeowners are part of the problem and not part of the solution, he said. He said homeowners would like to have a “golf-course” style lawn all the way up to the water’s edge, which is not helpful to the lake.

“They have no interest in putting in buffer zones,” Borrello said. “It’s all about stopping the flow of nutrients into the water, of phosphorus in particular. What we have been doing at the county and have spent a lot of money on is actually addressing the disease and not just the symptoms.”

The county has been involved in activities like stream bank stabilization and working with farmers on land management and keeping animals out of the water. Borrello said money has been put into lake management by the county, in the hundred thousands, which was then leveraged in millions of dollars with federal funds.

“That is where this problem will be solved,” he said. “At the end of the day, we are not going to solve this problem by cutting weeds. What is unfortunate is it doesn’t have the sex appeal of pointing to a barge in the middle of the lake and saying, ‘Hey, look what I’m doing for you.'”

Borrello said that is part of the solution, but it is important to invest more money in solving the problem at the source, continue to sewer the lakes, especially Chautauqua Lake. In March, he said he led a delegation to Washington, D.C., specifically to address water quality issues throughout the county, but focused a lot on the water quality of Chautauqua Lake.

“We were successful at the Lake Erie Management Commission of getting our projects listed on what called Army Corps. of Engineers’ 7001 List,” he said. “That’s the list you have to be on in order to qualify for federal funding.”

Borrello said being on that list has gotten the commission funding for studies in the north end of the county, and got $1.2 million for dredging and break wall repair in Dunkirk Harbor and Barcelona Harbor in total. He said that will happen next year. He said the delegation met with a variety representatives and the EPA, who were impressed that an area like Chautauqua County had such a representation in Washington, D.C.

“We were there in D.C. working with them directly,” Borrello said. “We were there in March, and by June, the Water Quality Project in Chautauqua Lake is now on that 7001 List.”

Cooperation and better leadership are the keys to the lake’s issues, he said. Everyone has to participate in the solution, Borrello said.

“I will say one last thing, and this isn’t necessarily going to be popular with a lot of people,” he said. “I think we need to explore looking at a lake district. The lake district is basically a home owners association for people that live around the water, that would be an entity that would assess a fee to the home owners so they can help pay for the management of that lake.”

Borrello said there will also need to be a more aggressive pursuit of federal estate funding.

However, thanks to the efforts of the Soil and Water Conservation Districts in the county, after years of the phosphorus levels rising, it has now leveled off and it has begun to drop over the past two years, Borrello said. He said those are measurable results his administration would continue.

“It’s not sexy, but that’s the solution,” Borrello said.

FERGUSON RESPONDS – “Tests Need To Be Over”

Ferguson said he appreciates all the work that has been done thus far, but said it shouldn’t take 25 years and 17 invasive species in the lake to find the solution. He said he understands that a lot of the factors are controlled by nature. But, with all the meetings and paperwork, Ferguson said it’s time to cut through the red tape.

“Whether it’s the county level, the New York state level, 26 percent of our tax base depends on this,” he said. “Over 100 plus homes have been for sale the last two years on Chautauqua Lake. It’s an enormous turn over for our community. If we have possible solutions, the tests need to be over and we need to move forward with the solutions so we can show radical improvement.”

However, improvements should not come at the cost of marine life or health, Ferguson said.

“Whether it’s Lake Erie, whether it’s Chautauqua Lake, whether it’s Cassadaga Lake, we drink this,” he said. “So many lakes have used a combination of traditional weeding — and I agree this isn’t working — and chemical use. We had proven this summer that that combination will work.”

Ferguson cited Dr. Courtney Wigdahl-Perry of the State University of New York at Fredonia who said some of the biggest projects on similar lakes have shown success because of an equal balance of those methods. However, gathering the weeds up is a key component of that.

“We need to let the professionals do what they’re paid to do, and let them clean this lake before we begin to lose (people),” he said. “If you watch social media right now, there are a lot of people saying that they will not return to Chautauqua Lake or Chautauqua County next summer. We can’t afford to lose people, we need to be bringing people back to the table, and I think we all agree on that.”

BORRELLO RESPONDS – “Owners … Need to Participate”

Borrello said the solution to the lake issues is in need of more leadership at this point. He said it has been several years of cutting the weeds and killing the weeds, but the question was specifically about algal blooms, of which killing the weeds had no impact.

“Yet, addressing the disease like I mentioned before, not only addresses the harmful algal blooms, it also addresses the weeds,” Borrello said. “I do agree with Mike, first of all, that we need a balanced approach because it’s not just one solution. When it comes to herbicides vs. cutting the weeds, we need to take a careful look at that because that is a short-term solution that we need to address when it comes to keeping people on this lake.”

Borrello said he has been there and knows that the smell is horrible and has seen the weeds in the lake. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, the weeds on the shoreline are the biproduct of being cut, he said. Borrello said he owns a house on Lake Erie and after a heavy storm, his shoreline is filled with trees that have been cut and pushed into creeks.

“Nobody is cleaning up my shoreline, that’s my responsibility,” he said. “The owners around the lake need to participate and they’ll say, ‘Well, I pay a lot of taxes,’ and I understand that, I pay a lot of taxes as well. We all know where our taxes go, it doesn’t go to the things it should go to (because) the state gobbles up most of that.”

Borrello said the solution is a combination of short-term and long-term actions. He said it is something he has focused on and had success with.