County looking to spend $1M for lake study

Photo by Timothy Frudd Chautauqua Lake is pictured Monday from Lakeside Park in Mayville. County officials want to spend $1 million to study the weed problem on the lake.

County officials are looking to spend $1 million to further study the weed problem on Chautauqua Lake.

They believe the study could possibly lead to the creation of a scientific research facility that could not only brings solutions to the weeds and harmful algal blooms locally, but other lakes across the state, nation and world.

During a meeting of the legislature’s Audit and Control Committee, members unanimously passed a resolution to spend an additional $1 million for the Jefferson Project, using American Rescue Plan Act funds, which originated from the federal government as part of the COVID-19 response. The legislature’s Planning and Economic Development Committee also approved the proposal.

The resolution now goes to the full legislature for final approval.

The county previously spent $250,000 on this study.

Before the vote, John Kelly III with the Jefferson Project at Chautauqua Lake, along with Chautauqua Institution President Michael Hill gave a 30-minute presentation about what the Jefferson Project has done so far and what its goals are for the future.


The Jefferson Project at Lake George, a state-of-the-art program for water quality and HAB research, was introduced to Chautauqua Lake in 2020 in partnership with county government, Chautauqua Institution, and the Chautauqua Lake and Watershed Management Alliance. The Jefferson Project is a collaboration of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, IBM Research, and the Lake George Association, which employs a sophisticated technological approach to studying fresh water, with a goal of understanding the impact of human activity on fresh water, and how to mitigate those effects.

Kelly noted the project began with Chautauqua Lake, due to HABs showing up in Lake George and were trying to figure how solutions on a larger scale. “We fundamentally believe that studying a network of lakes and looking at solutions across those lakes is a better and more effective way to protect our lakes than looking at them one by one,” he said.

In 2021, the Jefferson Project placed a senor platform in Chautauqua Lake. Kelly called it a “floating computer” that has hundreds of senors that descend and ascend in the water. It measures water velocities, water chemistry, algae and more “at a frequency and a precision that no one else in the world can measure.”

In 2021, Kelly noted that at one point from a visual standpoint, the north basin was basically clear while the south basin was completely covered in algae and green organic matter. “There were a lot of questions around what’s going on in this lake, in the north basin, in the south basin, questions about do these basins mix,” he said.

The data collected was used to develop computer models. “We measured things like dissolved oxygen and did an extensive physical sample of the water,” Kelly said.

In 2022, they enhanced the data but also designed and built stream monitors, which are planned to be used in 2023. “It’s very clear that what goes on in the lake is to a large extent a byproduct of the watershed and what enters the lake,” Kelly said.


Kelly said the prevailing belief has been that nutrients dumped in the lake mixed with warm temperatures and sun are causing these HABs to form. The solution has been to skim the algae off the top or to put in chemicals to kill the algae. But there’s more to the story.

Kelly said their studies have shown that there’s a whole biological cycle going on in the lake, including wind, water currents, and the explosive growth of algae in the water, which rises to the surface. “I know some people are proposing, ‘Let’s skim it (algae) off the surface.’ That’s not a useful thing to do because the entire water column, the entire basin, is full of it (algae),” he said.

Kelly said they also learned that the explosive growth of algae comes from not just nitrogen as a nutrient, but from phosphorus which has bonded with oxygen along the lake bed. “Under certain conditions, the phosphorus decouples from the oxygen and all of a sudden the phosphorus is available for these algae to grow,” he said.

Kelly noted there has been a belief that water from the north and south basins essentially operate independent of one another. He called that a fallacy. “It turns out that near Long Point and Bemus Point, there’s extensive water flow between those two,” he said.

Because of this, there’s a concern that the north basin could eventually have the same weed and HAB problems as the south basin. “We’re seeing the chemistry, we’re seeing the physics, we’re seeing the water movements,” Kelly said.

The next step, Kelly said, is to take water samples before, during and after HABs bloom so they can study the progression of these to determine the cause. “We’re going to look at the DNA of these species and find out what causes them to sometimes be just ugly green and sometimes actually release toxins,” he said.


Kelly said he could envision a statewide freshwater lake organization, which could turn into a national or even global effort, to deal with HABs.

Hill said Chautauqua Institution has contributed about $4 million. They have a goal to raise enough money to complete the project but added, “We’re not far enough ahead to fund this by ourselves,” noting that COVID-19 put them behind financially.

Because of this, they need the county’s assistance. Also, they believe the county and the Institution should be working in partnership in this fight.

Hill said they would like to put a research center on the grounds of the Institution, which would unite all the efforts from the county and other organizations. He said it would “really make Chautauqua County be seen as an epicenter of a place where researchers, government officials, and others who care about this issue worldwide.”

County Executive PJ Wendel said a Global Freshwater Institute potential could be the linchpin for scientific research. Something like that could also be an economic boom, with scientists, conferences and symposiums taking place. “This is in essence, the pot of gold we’ve been talking about,” he said.

Legislator David Wilfong, R-Jamestown, said he’s concerned that this $1 million can be seen as “just another study.” In the end, officials need to make sure action is taken.

Wendel agreed that action will be needed after the study. “I am committed to that because, again, this is such an economic driver. I’m confident in this research because we will have some of those action plans,” he said.

Legislature Chairman Pierre Chagnon said it’s important that officials realize there are two issues going on – lake weeds and HABs. They’re not exactly the same.

“What we have is a nuisance problem with the weeds. The weeds create a nuisance for the users of the lake. How do you deal with nuisance weeds? It’s maintenance. It’s the day-to-day, year-to-year work,” he said. “We also have a public health issue with harmful algal blooms. The maintenance that we do on the lake helps reduce the frequency and the extent of harmful algal blooms, but there really is nothing, up to this point, that we have done to study the harmful algal blooms and how to control the harmful algal blooms.”

That’s why Chagnon believes the Jefferson Project is a game-changer to address HABs. “Harmful algal blooms, when they go toxic, the toxins have a deleterious effect on humans, pets and livestock. … Weeds are nuisance but harmful algal blooms are a much bigger problem,” he said.

The legislature will vote Wednesday on the resolution to spend $1 million toward the Jefferson Project study.


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