A lake on the mend: Conroes highlight long-term efforts, changing social norms helping to restore Chautauqua Lake

BRIA GRANVILLE | Staff Photographer
At top, sunset over the north basin of Chautauqua Lake. Above, lake advocates Doug and Jane Conroe stand in the Children’s Beach rain garden on the Chautauqua Institution lakefront. Lakeside gardens not only beautify but function as buffers, keeping unwanted sediment from flowing into the lake.

Jane Conroe is not intimidated by a problem as big as the environment.

Since 1987, she and her husband Doug, Chautauqua Institution’s former director of operations, have volunteered for the Citizen Statewide Lake Assessment Program, monitoring the water quality of Chautauqua Lake.

Though the Conroes live across the lake in Maple Springs, they dedicate much of their time to the health of Chautauqua Lake and the Institution’s efforts toward sustainability.

And it’s paying off.

According to Dave McCoy, the Chautauqua County Watershed coordinator, after decades of deteriorating water quality, the lake’s environmental health has finally started to improve during the last two years. The lake’s levels of nutrients, such as phosphorous and nitrogen, which lead to excessive amounts of aquatic plants and toxic algal blooms, have been steadily decreasing since 2013.

The reasons for the improvements vary from enhancements to nearby sewage treatment plants to new state laws that restrict the use of phosphorus detergents to an increase in “buffer zones” along the lake shore, McCoy said.

He said that changing social norms, fueled by the work of individuals like Jane, is also a big part of the solution. As a part-time employee for the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy, she works with property owners along the lake, encouraging them to act as environmental stewards by preventing nutrient-rich runoff on their property from entering the lake.

The nutrients hail from man-made sources ranging from garden fertilizers to dishwasher soaps and are picked up by runoff. When they enter the lake in large amounts, McCoy said, the nutrients cause aquatic plants to grow to nuisance levels, the same way many of them impact the garden plants for which they are used.

“So you wind up with weeds everywhere in the lake,” he said. “Boats can’t get through, you can’t swim, and the lake stinks.”

One way to stop the spread of these nutrients is through planting natural “buffers” — trees, bushes and flowers — to prevent nutrient-rich stormwater from gushing directly into the lake. Conroe helps homeowners establish buffers in their lawns, explaining to them that they cannot extend their lawns all the way to the waterfront.   

“In the old days it was cool to smoke a cigarette, and now it’s not,” she said. “In the old days, it wasn’t cool to plant flowers by the edge of the lake. Now it’s more in vogue to plant those flowers. And that’s a gradual success story.”

As is the case with many environmental issues, Conroe said, not all homeowners are convinced that doing their part to help the lake is going to make a significant difference.

“People sometimes look at me and say, ‘Look at my neighbor — he has more acres of land and he’s not doing anything,’ ” she said. “And I say, ‘Your little bit is added to each little bit,’ and I mention many other groups that are starting to do the same thing. When you have lots of people who care doing small things, you start to see big changes.”

Property owners are not the only ones who can help prevent excessive plant growth in the lake. Conroe said those visiting Chautauqua can take small measures, such as cleaning up after their pets, to help keep the lake clean and free of excess plants.

“If you’re a pet owner, scoop the poop,” she said. “It’s high in phosphorus and nitrogen, just what the lake doesn’t need.”

The process of runoff causes another environmental concern for the lake. As water runs across the land, it not only picks up pollutants and nutrients, but also soil, which then discharges in the lake. This is called erosion, a natural process whereby sediments enter and eventually fill a body of water entirely.

Though erosion is often perpetuated by human activity, people also have the power to slow it down. Doug Conroe said planting buffer zones is a good way to slow the process of erosion, in addition to building a natural shoreline. He said the Institution is spearheading these efforts through its stormwater management program and by establishing a natural shoreline that prevents wave reflection, which causes heavy erosion.

“By having a natural shoreline, containing rocks and other items that we’ve installed on an irregular pattern, the shoreline itself stops a lot of that wave reflection,” Jane Conroe said. “Those rocks prevent land from eroding and direct the reflection in a less intense manner.”

Doug is confident that Chautauqua Lake’s health is improving gradually.

“If you look at the last 50 years, you can see degradation, but in terms of the near term, it’s been holding level,” he said.

Other communities along the lake are following Chautauqua’s lead.

“For example, Point Chautauqua across the lake this year planted a huge buffer along the edge of the lake. That was unthought-of five years ago,” Conroe said. “But people are buying into it. Each year, there is more and more proactive activity around the lake.”

Jane Conroe said that each project and the work of each community member or homeowner is significant, regardless of one’s motivation for embracing sustainable initiatives.

“For some of them, it’s because they’ve invested $2 million in a home and they don’t want to see property values go down,” she said. “That might be a little self-motivating, but if that’s what’s motivating them, I’ll take it.”

Chautauqua is also an ideal setting for exchanging ideas, Conroe said, as those who visit the grounds often learn from and teach Chautauquans regarding different environmental practices.

“Sometimes visitors are doing things in their homes and their home communities that aren’t happening here,” she said. “The Institution is attempting to be a leader in the area [of sustainability], but quite often people who visit come from very progressive communities, and they say, ‘How come you’re not doing that?’ I think those educational exchanges are very important.”

Regardless of the length of time that one spends in Chautauqua, Conroe believes everyone can find a way to help make it a more sustainable place, whether it’s by attending environmental lectures hosted by the Bird, Tree & Garden Club or by donating to Chautauqua or the Chautauqua Lake Association to help the lake.

“There are dozens of small projects going on all around the county, from someone helping a stream here, to someone helping a farmer not put so much fertilizer on his field, to someone helping a homeowner determine what plants to plant,” she said. “I don’t know if I‘ve ever lived in an area that has so many caring, hardworking people.”