Town of Ellery, only entity to decline signing MOA, has herbicide permit denied by NYSDEC
After several years of disagreement over herbicide use in Chautauqua Lake, more than a dozen entities with vested interests in the lake signed a Memorandum of Agreement in May designed to foster collaboration, communication and a coordinated, science-based approach to lake conservation.
Just one municipality — the Town of Ellery, with 12 miles of shoreline, the longest of any municipality on the lake — declined to sign the agreement.
Spearheaded by Chautauqua County Executive George Borrello and issued May 1, 2019, with Chautauqua Institution as the first signatory, the agreement established a Weed Management Consensus Strategy for the body of water that hosts much of the recreation and economic activity in the region.
“In the last few years, Chautauqua Lake has certainly been plagued with a lot of issues, like harmful algal blooms and invasive weeds,” Borrello said. “But most recently, it’s also been plagued with a lot of conflict and consternation and certainly a lot of infighting within the organizations.”
Last week, Ellery submitted an application to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation for a permit to apply herbicides in parts of Bemus Bay. On Wednesday, NYSDEC notified the town that its permit application was denied because there were not enough invasive plants in those zones to justify herbicide application.
The application requested herbicides Aquathol K and Navigate to control invasive species Eurasian watermilfoil and curly-leaf pondweed in parts of Bemus Bay. NYSDEC made a site visit to survey the plants in Bemus Bay on July 1.
A total of 15 nonprofit lake organizations, municipalities and other entities around Chautauqua Lake signed the agreement, which was designed to foster collaboration around lake conservation and management. Signatories hail the document as a step in the right direction, but some say it lacks specificity and involvement from all key lake players.
John Jablonski, executive director of the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy, said he thinks the MOA falls short in resolving disagreements about how much and where herbicides should be used, since Ellery, which has been instrumental in leading the reinvigoration of herbicide use on the lake in 2017, didn’t sign on.
“Sadly, it’s disappointing that the primary lead agency for the herbicide program decided to go their own way,” Jablonski said.
Ellery Supervisor Arden Johnson said the town decided not to sign the MOA because they did not agree with the wording, especially the provision that prevents herbicide usage north of Long Point. The town’s shoreline extends both above and below Long Point.
“It doesn’t allow herbicide usage in areas above Long Point, which includes Warners Bay, Sunset Bay and further north, which are very weedy and need it,” Johnson said.
Many of the cosigners said the MOA is a good step toward cooperation, but has language that should be clarified moving forward.
“I think it’s a positive, constructive step forward, but it needs to be followed with a lot more specificity to do the job it was intended to do,” said J. Regis Thompson, executive director of the Chautauqua Fishing Alliance. “It was a great first start.”
Jablonski said the MOA does not describe the difference between the native plants — that are crucial to the lake’s ability to serve as a home to fish and other wildlife — and the invasive species that can grow out of control.
“We have concern that the herbicide program that is underway does not differentiate between good plants and weeds. It kills them both,” he said. “We hope in the future, the MOA serves as a basis for the differentiations to be made, so the plant community that is beneficial to the lake can be protected for all the animals and food web that depend on the plants.”
Despite the MOA, the usage of herbicides remains a contentious issue.
Already this year, about 400 acres have been treated with herbicides off the shores of Ellery, Ellicott, Lakewood and North Harmony, compared to about 80 acres last year. Some, like the Chautauqua Lake Partnership, hail this as a victory. Others see it as cause for concern.
“Herbicides, in our opinion, should be limited, if used at all, to very small targeted problems that need to be solved pretty quickly,” said John Shedd, vice president of campus planning and operations at Chautauqua Institution. “We don’t believe they should be a broad solution for large parts of the lake.”
When there are fewer plants in the lake, areas for fish habitat decrease, Thompson said. Fewer plants means fewer roots to hold in the lake sediments and protect it from wave-induced turbulence, making it more likely the water will become cloudy. And when not as many plants are there to take up nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, those nutrients become available for algae to feed on, increasing the probability of algal blooms.
Jim Cirbus, president of the CLP, which advocates for the use of herbicides, said he hopes future revisions of the MOA will consider amending the document’s directive that herbicides not be applied north of Long Point.
Cirbus said signing the agreement was a difficult decision for the CLP because of the Long Point provision, which restricts where herbicides can be applied. A number of board members and senior leadership resigned over the issue.
“It was a leap of faith,” Cirbus said. “You’re signing a document that had a lot of loose ends.”
The MOA follows a February conservation statement signed by some interested parties that established a commitment to improving the health of the lake through a scientific approach and both short- and long-term solutions.
Over the winter, Borrello met with Chautauqua Lake stakeholders to begin the drafting process for the agreement, with the ultimate goal of facilitating conservation on the lake, which serves as an economic, social and cultural hub of the region. Though lakefront property only accounts for 1% of the total land area of the county, it brings in 25% of the county’s property tax, Borrello said.
“Everyone’s concern was the same — we wanted to have a safe, usable lake,” he said. “We wanted good water quality. Everybody had the same mission. It was just that the methods differed as to how they were going to accomplish that mission.”
The county then hired Lancaster, New York-based environmental consulting group Ecology and Environment Inc. to conduct more formal interviews with the 16 groups involved. Later, the firm reached out to the groups to check their understanding of each organization’s concerns.
Taking all stakeholders’ priorities into account, the MOA includes 24 tenets, known as the Chautauqua Lake Weed Management Consensus Strategy.
The MOA is valid until April 30, 2021, and will be updated annually.
It states that treatment options will be considered based on plant surveys and science “carried out in a responsible manner.”
Herbicides will be evaluated by a third party to determine their effectiveness and potential impacts to non-target plants and animals. Herbicides are to be applied at a time and place that won’t interfere with fish spawning.
In addition, herbicide usage will be limited to 567 acres of the 13,000-acre lake and can only be applied below Long Point.
By signing the agreement, the parties promised not to sue any of the other violators of the agreement. Signatories who violate the document could lose county funding.
On July 30, 2018, Chautauqua Institution filed legal action against the NYSDEC and the Town of Ellery over the use of herbicides, saying that an environmental impact statement from the NYSDEC did not properly address the safety of herbicides with respect to people and animals.
The suit was dismissed in the state Supreme Court in Erie County in December because it was filed “too late and moot with respect to the 2018 administrative process for herbicide permits and too early for any yet to be filed permit applications for 2019,” the ruling read.
Chautauqua Institution was the first party to sign the MOA this spring.
“I think what it did, was it had us stop what had become a screaming match about what the right thing to do was,” said Institution President Michael E. Hill. “It gave us some rules of the road for the next two years of our collective work together, and it’s made a huge difference. Now we can collectively focus on finding research and solutions for the long-term.”
In another step toward collaboration, the Institution, the Chautauqua Lake and Watershed Management Alliance, the Chautauqua Lake Association, CLP, CWC, and the Roger Tory Peterson Institute came together to host a Chautauqua Lake Conference at the Institution on June 15.
At the day-long event, more than 150 community members gathered to learn more about weeds, algae and the watershed.
While signatories are hopeful for the future of the lake and collaboration among groups, the largest disagreements have yet to be resolved.
“The MOA is a social-political document,” said Doug Conroe, executive director of the CLA. “It was meant to be a general guidance, general consensus and in many respects it is. In terms of an active document that is directive and does things, that’s not what it is.”
Effects of the MOA, which has been in place for just over two months, have yet to be seen.
“Will the county actually have a collaborative, science-based approach that relies on people who have a familiarity and understanding of the science of the lake?” Jablonski asked.
Shedd said that while no two lakes are the same, much can be learned from other science-based, community conservation efforts.
“The MOA is an important and effective first step toward prioritizing independently developed scientific data to inform lake management decisions,” he said. “If it achieves nothing else, that’s a monumental accomplishment.”