Grants aid Institution’s efforts to protect Chautauqua Lake


University Hill rain garden is one of the signature beauty spots in the Institution’s ongoing green efforts. The three-tiered garden, featuring cascading plots separated by stone weirs, suffered this spring in heavy rains but has recovered. Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

John Ford | Staff Writer

Chautauqua Institution is in line for nearly $700,000 in federal and state grant money, which will be used over the next three years to accelerate development of its natural stormwater runoff filtration systems.

“If good fortune is where preparation meets opportunity,” said Doug Conroe, director of operations, “we can count ourselves fortunate indeed in Chautauqua.”

Conroe said that in October, Chautauqua received the results of a year-long engineering study outlining steps to be taken to move ahead aggressively in ongoing efforts to manage rain and stormwater runoff in ways that best protect the quality of Chautauqua Lake.

“At almost the same time, we received word from Albany that federal and some state environmental grant funds were available for competition among interested communities,” Conroe said. “We were definitely interested, and armed with our track record and our new engineering study, we applied for grants.

In March, Chautauqua was notified the Institution had been awarded $696,000 in two planning and construction grants.

“While several steps remain in the process before we actually receive the funds, we have begun preliminary plans to move ahead rapidly to develop our 21st-century planning and development of eco-friendly water management policies,” he said.

Chautauqua survived strong competition for the federal money, increasingly scarce during a recession. Conroe stressed that the grant money has not yet been transferred to the Institution.

“First,” he said, “the Asset Policy Committee and full Board of Trustees will meet during the last week of the season to consider final approval for acceptance of the grants. There have been extensive preliminary discussions of all the issues, but formal approval must come before any other steps.”

Since the grants are made from federal Environmental Protection Agency and Clean Water Act funds distributed through the New York State Green Innovation Grant Program, paperwork is involved. There are four pages of forms required by various state agencies.

“We figure we should be able to make a formal public announcement later in the fall, when all the necessary requirements are met,” Conroe said.

‘This isn’t a matter of just holding out our hands for the money,” he continued. “Part of the deal is that the Institution provides at least 10 percent matching funding, so there’s a financial commitment from our side, too. Here’s an example: The grant money will fund a rain garden, but we will need to pay for the underground pipe which moves the water from the storm drains to the rain garden.”

Rain gardens like the new site at the corner of Peck Avenue and South Lake Drive and the showcase three-tiered garden on University Hill will be an important feature of the Institution’s stormwater runoff management plan, but Institution planners and engineering consultants foresee a higher priority for the coming offseason.

“The Institution encompasses 700 acres,” Conroe explained. “Of these, 450 acres are the golf course. That is almost two-thirds of our land area. We believe this should be our first priority.”

Golf courses are sometimes mentioned in the same discussion as parking lots and other intensely developed and ecologically dangerous areas, since most vegetation has been cleared and natural buffer zones have been largely eliminated.

“We feel the Chautauqua golf course is ecologically advanced and can mitigate many of the deleterious effects of stormwater runoff,” Conroe said, “but heavy rainfall, like last Saturday night’s thunderstorms, overtaxes the existing water management systems. We want and need to do a better job there.”

Engineering and hydrology studies have confirmed that the golf course primarily drains under Route 394 and Massey Avenue through the Ravine by the Boys’ and Girls’ Club into Chautauqua Lake. The Institution’s response, accelerated by the infusion of the grant money, will be to establish a series of mini-wetlands on the golf course side of Route 394 to absorb the stormwater before it can carry phosphorus and other pollutants into the lake. The swampy area between Massey Avenue and Route 394 also should become much more manageable.

“Golfers playing the Lake Course at the Chautauqua Golf Club won’t notice any difference in the layout,” Conroe said. “We will take care that the wetlands will be incorporated into existing out-of-bounds areas. We’ll probably take them right up to the edge of the Route 394 swale, which marks the limits of state maintenance of the highway.”

The Institution also has ambitious off-season plans for the Ravine. The engineering drawings below illustrate the scope of work envisioned for the stream below Thunder Bridge.

“The rock dams will further impede the stormwater flow, creating new pools while beautifying the entire area,” Conroe said. “We’re excited to get started.”

The Institution’s grant request succeeded after an intense competition involving many applications. New York State Green Infrastructure Coordinator Suzanna Randall and spokesman Jon Sorensen confirmed from their Albany offices that “the competition was tough. For our two rounds of grants so far, there were 390 applications, and we were only able to fund roughly 22 percent of them.”

The state’s Environmental Facilities Corporation website says that Chautauqua’s “highly visible demonstration project will provide a model for the Chautauqua Lake drainage basin of how communities can protect and improve water resources and revitalize community centers by greening existing infrastructure.”

Keeping that existing structure green will largely be the responsibility of Ryan Kiblin, gardens and landscaping supervisor.

“Aside from the golf course wetlands, we’ll be primarily focused on repairing buffer zones, emphasizing native perennials more than ever,” she said.

She continued, “We planted hundreds of ‘natives’ in our greenhouse before the start of the season, and in the off-season, we can transplant these more mature plants strategically around the grounds.”

She said she is especially pleased with the development of the University Hill rain garden with its three weirs.

“These stone weirs allow the three tiers of the rain garden to filter stormwater sequentially, each handling runoff from the uphill tier,” Kiblin said.

“We get greener every year at Chautauqua. It’s a beautiful thing.”