Testing the waters

Photos | Eve Edelheit

Chautauqua Utility District staff keeps Institution clean, hydrated through three facets of water management

John Ford | Staff Writer

The former director of the United Nations Environment Programme has said that “we used to think that energy and water would be the central issues for the next century. Now we think that water will be the critical issue.”

“Water is the oil of the 21st Century,” a former Dow Chemical president told The Economist magazine.

If they are right, Chautauqua might be in pretty good shape.

“We’ve got a water supply and sewerage system that works pretty well here,” said Tom Cherry, the veteran chief of the Chautauqua Utility District, an independent agency whose territory encompasses little more than the Institution grounds but is not part of the Institution’s organizational structure.

“There are three facets of water management that most concern Chautauquans,” Cherry explained. “First is drinking water. We draw from the middle column of lake water — about 30 to 35 feet from the surface. That water is pumped up to our water treatment plant, located next to the police station behind the Colonnade.

“We treat the water and distribute it through the grid to private homes and public offices and buildings in the Institution.” The CUD also stores some 900,000 gallons of purified drinking water in two large tanks at the Golf Club for emergencies.

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“The second part of the water picture is rainwater runoff and sump from private homes,” Cherry continued. “That water travels through storm sewers ultimately to Chautauqua Lake, often via natural and installed filtration systems, such as rain gardens, buffer zones and subterranean filters.” This water distribution system is managed by the Institution’s Operations Department.

“Third is wastewater. This is what enters the sewage system and is typically what comes from bathrooms and kitchens. This is the yucky part,” Cherry said with a chuckle.

“We treat wastewater at our plant at the south end of the grounds, adjacent to the new sailing center,” Cherry said. “It’s a complicated process, and we take special care with the water which ultimately enters the lake. Basically, the solid and sedimentary matter is hauled by special tanker truck to Jamestown, where it undergoes further treatment prior to being deposited in the county landfill.”

Originally from nearby Corry, Pa., Cherry majored in biology and graduated from Edinboro University with a minor in organic chemistry. After graduation, he worked for a while across the lake from the Institution, got his operator’s licenses in water treatment and took over at CUD in 1978.

“I started coming to Chautauqua Lake at the age of 10,” Cherry recalled. “I fished for muskie on the lake and worked maintaining cottages which my parents owned. I’ve been around here, more or less, ever since.” Cherry has continued a passionate interest in the lake and its conservation since he began fishing here. He is a frequent member of Institution panels covering Chautauqua Lake and its preservation and will lead the Bird, Tree & Garden Club’s Aug. 1 lakefront walk.

Cherry and his team of nine part- and full-time employees report to a board of five CUD commissioners. The commissioners, who all serve three-year renewable terms, must be residents and owners of taxable real estate in the district as well as Chautauqua town voters. They currently are all Institution residents.

“We have long enjoyed a cooperative, mutually supportive relationship with our commissioners,” Cherry noted. “We’re obviously an integral part of the Chautauqua Institution, and the commissioners have played an important advocacy and liaison role for many years,” he said.

The CUD takes its rightful place of pride in a locality suffused with history. “I was told when I took over the job that Chautauqua in 1893 became the first completely sewered community in the U.S.,” Cherry said.

“Some of the tanks that were installed in the 1890 era remained in service for nearly 100 years, until a new sewage treatment plant came on line in 1978,” Cherry noted. “We still use today others of those original water treatment tank holding areas.”

Cherry’s principal office is in the sewage treatment plant. Also at the facility is a well-equipped lab for testing water at various stages of its cleaning process. Don Constantino, 30-year Institution veteran of Ashville, runs the sewage treatment plant and oversees the multi-stage process of cleaning the Institution’s “influent” to a level well below EPA and New York state-mandated standards before the “effluent” is permitted to enter the lake. The process involves things like clarifying tanks and rotating contactors. The wastewater plant has the capacity to process 840,000 gallons of influent daily; an average flow during the season is around 500,000 gallons.

“Our figures show we’re often at half the levels set by the federal government and state authorities,” Constantino said. The odoriferous nature of the whole wastewater treatment process is largely neutralized by exhaust hoods strategically placed over many of the outdoor settling tanks.

Constantino has two kids and four grandchildren in the area. They take up what free time remains from a demanding schedule of 12 days on and two off during the season. Sharing that schedule is Gordy Pugh, 29 years at the Institution, who drives the special tanker and its cargo to Jamestown.

“I’ve got 70 acres that my son and I farm, mostly for hay, at my place near Sherman,” Pugh said.  “We’ve got chickens, cows, pigs, turkeys. And I’ve worked here and elsewhere as a carpenter, so I often help out the crews at Institution stages during big productions. There’s a good cooperative spirit at the utility district: We have at times pitched in and helped each other build houses and barns.”

Ryan Lucas walks in. In his second year as a summer wastewater plant employee, Lucas is also a baseball pitcher, good enough to land a full-ride scholarship to Canisius College in Buffalo this fall. He dreams of the major leagues one day, but “if that doesn’t work out, I plan a career in teaching.”

Up at the water treatment plant behind the Colonnade, Steve Spas of Ashville is chief operator. A relative rookie, he’s been on the job only 25 years, full-time for 23. Spas has worked in factories, dairies, saw mills, oil and gas fields in New York, Pennsylvania and other states. He and his wife of 35 years appreciate the stability and continuity of his current job.

“The current water plant was built in 1928,” he explains. “Prior to that, steam pumps were used to move water up to the golf course ponds to settle. Now that water nourishes the golf course. And six years ago we rebuilt some of our more critical equipment, added new technology at the water plant, and were able to double our capacity to 1.5 million gallons per day.

“In the Institution, usage averages about half a million gallons per day in the season,” Spas continued, “and drops to 50,000 gallons per day during the winter. So we’re pretty well covered.”

August is the toughest season for water treatment. “The summer heat bakes the surface water,” Spas said, “and adds weight. Once a year, usually in August or September, that heavy top water drops to the bottom and the lake turns over. The heated water generally adds turbidity, or cloudiness, which complicates our process, too.”

Assisting Spas are five-year Chautauqua employee Mike Starks of Mayville, N.Y., and summer intern Andrew Laurienzo, of Lancaster, N.Y., east of Buffalo. In his off hours, Starks brews beer good enough to win medals at a 2010 New York state competition in Buffalo. “The second-place entry was my Christmas holiday beer; my oatmeal stout took third place,” he reports. “What you need is grain, malt extract, yeast, hops and the experience to soak, boil and mix in the right measures at the right times.”

Jamestown Community College graduate Laurienzo, meanwhile, has his private pilot’s license with instrument rating. He’s hoping for a career in commercial aviation down the line.

The water plant staff is completed by Peter Flagg, the longest-serving of any CUD employee and part-time versatile pinch hitter, and administrative assistant Karen McCann, who has been on the job at the Institution for six years. McCann, an Erie native who now lives in Mayville, has taken on payroll, accounting and other tasks which were previously contracted out.  She also finds the time to be active in the local Habitat for Humanity.

“She rules the roost,” Cherry said simply. McCann smiles. “I just make a suggestion and wait until one of them brings it back to me as his idea,” she replies.

So the utility district staff hums along, observing comfortable rituals like Friday luncheons at a local restaurant “to reconnect with each other personally,” as McCann said.

Supervisor Cherry sees it all working and looks into the future. “Several of us will be retiring in the next several years,” he said in his measured way. “We’ve got a plan.”

The core team at the Chautauqua Utility District totals 105 years of Institution experience. Pictured outside the utility district office behind the Colonnade, (left to right) Gordy Pugh, Tom Cherry, Don Constantino, Karen McCann, Steve Spas and Mike Starks.