New technology in lake research spotlighted at conference

Michael Hill, Chautauqua Institution President, introduces the Chautauqua Lake Water Quality Conference on June 17, 2023. JESS KSZOS/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Mariia Novoselia
Staff writer

The third annual Chautauqua Lake Water Quality Conference on June 17 in the Athenaeum Hotel parlor was dedicated to bringing the community up to speed on multifaceted research carried out on the lake and outlining plans for future scientific ventures. 

Eight speakers with different academic and professional backgrounds shared their expertise on topics like algae, Chautauqua Lake’s importance in the region, and the community’s involvement in lake health and ecology. Two of the speakers, whose work falls primarily outside Chautauqua Lake — namely, the Finger Lakes and Lake Erie — presented their perspectives on similarities between the bodies of water, as well as common challenges and potential ways to overcome them. 

Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill said that the Institution has so far invested almost $5 million in lake research,

“I am really thrilled that we have been joined this year by the county adding another $1.25 million,” Hill said. 

Chautauqua Lake is considered “impaired” by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation; in April, the Chautauqua County Legislature approved an additional investment of $1 million to continue research done by The Jefferson Project. 

The Jefferson Project does research with the “ultimate goal” of learning “how to mitigate problems like harmful algal blooms or road salt (pollution)”, said Tobias Shepherd, lake project manager at Chautauqua Institution.

The Jefferson Project is a partnership between Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, IBM Research and the Lake George Association.  

“We enter year three of having the Jefferson Project here in Chautauqua County, and I couldn’t be more happy that that third year coincides with our third year of hosting this conference,” Hill said.  

Kevin Rose, Allison Hrycik, and Harry Kolar outlined the project’s work. 

Kolar, an IBM fellow, said this season Chautauqua Lake will be surveyed with “the newest generation” of vertical profilers. 

Vertical profilers are installed on the lake every summer and are used to take a wide variety of measurements, including water temperature, conductivity, pH levels and more, said Rose, acting director at the Darrin Fresh Water Institute at RPI and the Jefferson Project. 

The new profilers have several advantages over their predecessors, including additional sensors that will be able to provide scholars with a 3D view of currents, improved battery capacity, stability and safety, Kolar said. 

“These are state of the art; no one else has anything like that,” he said.

The new profilers will be installed during the week of July 17. 

Hrycik, research scientist at Darrin Fresh Water Institute at RPI, spoke about a new survey that was launched earlier this year. The survey will look into attached algae, which is algae that grows on sediment or rocks, Hrycik said. 

Tiles at 11 docks across Chautauqua Lake were installed on June 19. As those tiles accumulate samples for the research team, they’ll help determine what species exist in the attached algae community and how they interact with surface algae, Hrycik said. 

Rose, who joined the conference from Switzerland via Zoom, encouraged the audience to think of Chautauqua Lake as “a complex system of systems.” 

“When we think about the harmful algal blooms and the drivers causing them, we tend to think of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that get into the lake from either external sources or sediments, plus warm temperatures and sun — equals harmful algal blooms; the reality is … it’s not that simple.”

Rose said a lot of factors play a part when it comes to HABs, including internal waves, or “physical mixing processes,” different levels of water density, and so on. 

Associate Professor of Biology at State University of New York at Fredonia Courtney Wigdahl-Perry also provided updates on her research on HABs and summarized her team’s plan for the near future. 

Wigdahl-Perry’s research involves installing temperature sensors at five spots, or “lines,” across the lake. Two lines are in place already, she said. 

The sensors take readings of temperature every five minutes. Wigdahl-Perry’s team has been deploying these sensors across the lake since 2019. Two years ago, Wigdahl-Perry said, there were six lines spread across the South basin of Chautauqua Lake, and a year before that, there were two lines in the North basin. 

“This has proven to be a very valuable tool for us in understanding what’s happening below the water surface,” Wigdahl-Perry said. 

This year, the plan is to have two lines in the North basin, two lines in the South basin and one line in the middle, in Bemus Point. Wigdahl-Perry said data collected with the sensors will help her understand if and how the two basins influence and interact with each other. 

Wigdahl-Perry’s team is also expanding their research to assess the effect of road salt on zooplankton. Special attention will be paid to Daphnia, Wigdahl-Perry said. Daphnia are capable of quickly clearing algae cells from the lake by eating them.

Further, drones can help scholars learn how algae blooms “originate, move and disperse,” Wigdahl-Perry said.

After the conference, she elaborated on the advantages that drones have over satellites, which were used previously. 

“With drones, we can fly below clouds, and we can control the timing of those passes,” she said. Satellite images, on the other hand, “have the advantage of getting to see the whole lake at once.”

As part of this ongoing project, aerial images from drones and satellites are combined with more traditional water sampling. 

“This is very exciting but also very challenging because it gives us a lot of data that we then have to break down,” Wigdahl-Perry said. 

She said her team has been using this method of data collection since 2019 and has been doing so in collaboration with Finger Lakes Institute. 

Lisa Cleckner, director of Finger Lakes Institute, who also presented at the conference, said afterwards that besides using drones to study HABs, what Chautauqua Lake and the Finger Lakes have in common is “the engagement of partners that need to be present to address water issues.”

Jeanette Schnars, executive director of the regional science consortium at Presque Isle, also shared insights about lake concerns outside Chautauqua Institution, specifically Lake Erie, which also deals with HABs.  

Schnars said that for dogs, an interaction with cyanotoxins can result in vomiting, having seizures and, in some instances, dying. 

Dogs are more vulnerable to the exposure to HABs than humans, Shepherd said, because they are smaller in size. They also ingest the toxins in concentrated doses, Shepherd said, when they are licking themselves dry after swimming, for example. 

Each presentation was followed by a Q-and-A. Those who did not get their questions answered due to time constraints were promised to get a follow-up after the conference.

Randall Perry, executive director of the Chautauqua Lake & Watershed Management Alliance, spoke to the audience about the importance of the lake, emphasizing that it is a “major component of county property and sales tax bases,” as well as a “highly productive and sought-after fishery” among other virtues. 

Julie Barrett-O’Neill, Region 9 director of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, spoke about the roles that her department, the state, and the local community play in the quest to sustain Chautauqua Lake. 

“New Yorkers care about the environment, and this makes my job feasible,” Barrett-O’Neill said.  

Community member Julie Danielson said she has been to all past Chautauqua Lake conferences, and what brings her back every year is “the importance of the lake” and understanding “how critical the health of the lake is to the whole county.”

Mark Wenzler, director of the Chautauqua Climate Initiative, said about 100 people attended the event. 

“It shows that Chautauquans care deeply about the lake,” Wenzler said.

Wenzler said he hopes the conference helps members of the community see that “we all have a role to play in the long-term health of Chautauqua Lake.” 

“It takes all of us for those solutions to succeed,” he said. 


The author Mariia Novoselia

Mariia Novoselia is a senior at Western Kentucky University studying journalism with a minor in political science. Born and raised in Odesa, Ukraine, she previously attended Odesa I. I. Mechnikov National University. She has experience writing for student publications and interning at a local newspaper in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Summer 2023 will be her first season on the grounds of Chautauqua, where she will be covering environmental issues. Mariia is also a music enthusiast, and when not writing, she enjoys singing and playing the guitar.