The Trouble with Seaweed, and Chautauqua Lake Association’s 8 Million Pound Solution



Eight million pounds — that’s how much thick, tangly, smelly seaweed the Chautauqua Lake Association has harvested so far this summer.

The nonprofit fleet of eight harvesters, essentially aquatic lawnmowers, comb the shore five days per week to keep shallow areas passable. They carry at least a ton of weeds each, throw the extra on a barge and later unload their haul into dump trucks that bring the weeds to local farms for composting. Within two to three years, the weeds will be nutrient-rich soil used in fields rather than at the bottom of the lake.

At 6:30 p.m. Monday at Heinz Beach, the CLA will demonstrate one of those harvesters that wrangle the lake’s perennial nuisance.

“You go back 100 years and read a newspaper article, and they talk about the weeds and the algae,” said Don Emhardt, CLA operations director. “It’s something natural to the lake.”

He’s right: An article from the July 6, 1905, Chautauqua Assembly Herald details “tall weeds which grow about the borders in the deeper waters.” Another Daily article from Aug. 18, 1964, goes beyond Emhardt’s 100-year figure to say, “The problem of weeds along the Chautauqua shore line has always been a distraction and a nuisance to homeowners and summer residents.”

Unwanted aquatic vegetation was one of the reasons — including managing pollution and maintaining shorelines — the CLA incorporated in 1953. In a speech to what was then the Bird and Tree Garden Club, then-CLA Membership Chairman Daniel Lincoln laid out a daunting vision for CLA stewardship.

“Declaring that the Association was just 50 years too late in correcting the problem, Mr. Lincoln pointed out that it will cost 50 times as much and will take 50 times as long to correct the problem,” the Daily wrote on July 7, 1955.

Those early days were experimental. In 1954, the CLA played “amplified recordings of the buzzing of a lady mosquito” to lure the pests into an electrified cage, and early attempts at weed control involved dousing sections of the lake with chemicals such as sodium arsenite, a herbicide that “tended to make the water unfit for swimming at various times during the Chautauqua season” throughout the ‘50s.

Dumping expensive herbicide into the lake eventually fell out of fashion, and the CLA looked for alternatives, landing on the mechanical harvesters still in use today.

The first weed cutter, the Chautauqua Clipper, was christened June 2, 1963, at Miller Bell Tower. Reports less than a year later said the Clipper was “praised by thousands of summer residents along Chautauqua Lake” for its effectiveness, and the CLA invested in more harvesters as a more efficient (and less toxic) alternative to herbicides.

Today, the CLA focuses almost exclusively on shoreline cleanup and harvesting.

“Pretty much what we do is cut weeds,” Emhardt said.

Weed cutting is distributed across Chautauqua Lake’s distinct north and south basins. The southern basin is much shallower, leading to warmer waters that encourage weed growth. Emhardt said the weeds become a nuisance in the southern basin first, particularly the invasive curly-leaf pondweed, and move north throughout the summer.

Eight million pounds of seaweed is high for this time in the season, and CLA officials estimate 2016 could set records for aquatic vegetation removed. Winter was unusually mild this year and failed to kill off aquatic vegetation with thick sheets of lake ice.

“This year, you just can’t keep up with the stuff,” said Justin Eddy, one of the CLA maintenance workers piloting the Betty Sheldon, the companion of the older Ralph C. Sheldon harvester working around Bemus Point.

Those diesel-powered harvesters are construction orange and aquamarine, respectively, but they function largely the same; a set of teeth cuts weeds to a depth of around five feet close to shore, pulling up to about three feet farther out. These harvesters are not subtle when they pass by docks and shorelines: Engines rumble like a tractor, and paddle wheels slap the water repeatedly as they chug along.

Eddy pilots from a platform above a conveyor belt that holds the seaweed. Once the harvester is at capacity, it conveys the weeds onto a barge that takes things to shore for pickup. That yield is mostly seaweed, but it’s not uncommon to rescue bikes, fishing poles, tables, chairs and even anchors lost to the lake.

These crews are out starting at 7 a.m., going through the afternoon for the duration of summer, although peak seaweed, Emhardt said, will occur in the next week or two.

The weeds follow a relatively predictable pattern over the season, which makes it easy to stay ahead of maintenance. Harmful algal blooms, which sometimes lead to beach closures as the season wears on, are much harder to predict, Emhardt said, and there’s no machine to get rid of them.

“Let’s put it this way, this morning was crystal clear,” he said of the algae. “You go from there.”

(Photo by Tanner Cole.)

Morgan Kinney

The author Morgan Kinney

Morgan Kinney is a Northwestern University journalism student who likes to explain things, particularly science. Read his Twitter thoughts @morgan_kinney.