Water temperature, HABs, insects, Jefferson Project updates all up for discussion at 4th annual conference on Chautauqua Lake health

Emilee Arnold / staff photographer
Chautauquans, regional stakeholders, and lake scientists mingle before the beginning of the fourth annual Chautauqua Lake Conference on June 22 at the Chautauqua Golf Club.

Last Saturday, the Chautauqua Golf Club played host to the fourth annual Chautauqua Lake Conference, featuring four expert presentations about the state of the lake over the past year. 

Each presentation highlighted a different research project, either new since last summer or a continuation of existing research, that centered Chautauqua Lake. The presentations covered topics such as water temperature, harmful algal blooms (HABs), aquatic plant species, and insect populations. 

One topic that consistently came up during each presentation was the differences between the north and south basins of the lake. Courtney Wigdahl-Perry, a biology professor and lake ecologist at SUNY Fredonia, presented first, dedicating a large portion of her talk to the research she and her students spent the last year conducting at “Bemus Bay.” 

The bay, which does not officially have a name, is located at the center of Chautauqua Lake, situated right between the north and south basins. Wigdahl-Perry explained that she and her student researchers found that the water trends in Bemus Bay were distinct from both of the other basins. That, she argued, is why it is imperative that the lake is examined in its entirety – each distinct region of the lake is influenced by the other regions of the lake, and ignoring the other regions would not allow researchers to get the clearest picture of how the lake is changing. 

Wigdahl-Perry shared news of a project she’s undertaking over the next three years. Through the project, called “Thin Ice,” she hopes to better understand the relationship between ice cover and algae, driven by the central question: “How does changing ice cover affect freshwater algae communities?” She said the project would consist of monthly water sampling for the next three years, and that researchers would be using the Miller Bell Tower as one of their sampling locations. 

Following a short break, Harry Kolar, an IBM fellow, and Allison Hrycik, a researcher at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, presented updates from The Jefferson Project, now in its fourth year at Chautauqua Lake. 

Kolar, joining the conference via Zoom, spoke about some of the methods The Jefferson Project uses to monitor water quality in the lake, including brand new tributary monitoring stations, the first wave of which were installed over the past year. The stations allow researchers to measure the impacts that rivers flowing into the lake may have on the lake ecosystem, including things like chemicals, sediment, nutrients, and organisms. 

The Jefferson Project is also monitoring HABs, Hrycik said, which are caused by cyanobacteria in freshwater ecosystems. Cyanobacteria is known for its distinctive blue-green color, and, as such, is often referred to simply as blue-green algae. 

“These blooms can be harmful to humans, pets and wildlife,” she said. “They contain toxins – including neurotoxins – which go after the brain and nervous system, and hepatotoxins, which affect the liver.”

While not all blooms are toxic, she said there was no way to know for certain without testing, so it is important to avoid recreating in areas where blue-green algae is present. 

Hrycik also discussed some of the findings that came from the over 1,100 water samples researchers collected from Chautauqua Lake in 2023. One of the key takeaways from that research was that the lake has a very high amount of nutrients like phosphorus, which cyanobacteria need to grow; she said that one of the project’s goals for this year is to better understand the source of those nutrients. 

Following Kolar and Hrycik’s presentation, conference attendees were able to visit booths set up by organizations or entities involved in the conservation of Chautauqua Lake: Chautauqua-Conewango Consortium, Chautauqua County, Chautauqua Lake Association, Chautauqua Lake Partnership, Chautauqua Lake and Watershed Management Alliance, and Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy. 

The final portion of the conference consisted of two presentations from Claire McMahon and Melanie Rooney, both graduate students at SUNY Oneonta. 

McMahon discussed her research on aquatic plants in Chautauqua Lake using the Point Intercept Rake Toss Relative Abundance Method, or PIRTRAM. When utilizing PIRTRAM, researchers toss a rake into the water, then pull it back onto their boat or research station, allowing it to gather aquatic plants at or near the surface of the water. Then, researchers sort the plants by species and rate their abundance on a scale ranging from “none” to “very dense.” 

In Chautauqua Lake, McMahon used PIRTRAM to monitor the abundance of Eurasian Water Milfoil, a non-native plant species that can cause serious problems for a lake if its population grows very quickly. She explained that using PIRTRAM allows researchers to better understand trends in the population of Eurasian Water Milfoil in the lake, thus making it easier to quickly identify if the plant will cause serious issues. 

Rooney, the conference’s final speaker, spoke about her work studying herbivorous insects last year. She focused her research mainly on weevils and caddis flies, and their relationships with Eurasian Water Milfoil. 

Rooney observed a sharp decline over the past year in the amount of milfoil, meaning she was only able to collect 213 out of the normal 375 samples she would collect for this research. Consequently, she also observed declines in the populations of both weevils and caddis flies across all the locations she sampled last year compared to previous years. 

Throughout the entire conference, two ideas continued to be repeated: that Chautauquans must continue to be conscious of their impact on local ecosystems, and that Chautauqua Lake is incredibly complex, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to studying the lake.

Tags : Chautauqua Golf ClubChautauqua LakeChautauqua Lake ConferenceCourtney Wigdahl-Perryenvironmentharmful algal bloomsjefferson projectSUNY Fredonia

The author Jeremy Kohler