Human factors often prevent progress around a particular scientific issue even when the scientific consensus is strong. For vaccines, it’s irrational fear. For human evolution, it’s religious objections. For climate change, it’s frequently misunderstanding of the concepts of climate and weather.
When it comes to harmful algal blooms in Chautauqua Lake, County Legislator Pierre Chagnon believes human action is the missing component to solving this persistent problem.
Chagnon will lead the Bird, Tree & Garden Club’s Lake Walk at 6:30 p.m. tonight on the topic of harmful algal blooms in the lake. The walk will begin at the covered porch at Heinz Beach, below the Youth Activities Center.
The title of his talk is “Harmful Algae May Need More Than Science,” which refers to the need for individual and political action to address the biggest threat to the lake: HABs that primarily occur during the summer months.
The science behind the main cause of HABs is clear: excessive levels of phosphorus entering the lake, Chagnon said. At this point, lakeside communities need to continue to shift from “raising awareness” about the issue to doing something about it, he said.
“Just understanding what causes HABs doesn’t do anything to change their prevalence or occurrence,” Chagnon said.
For this reason, he believes the best immediate solution is to limit the amount of phosphorus that enters the lake through runoff, which individuals who live along the lake can accomplish by building buffer zones at the edges of their lawns, reducing their use of fertilizers and updating their septic systems if they have them.
The efforts of individuals, municipalities and businesses in the area seem to have improved the situation within the last few years, Chagnon said, as the amount of phosphorus entering the lake has decreased along with the presence of HABs.
But he is hesitant to assume the former trend is the only phenomenon causing the latter.
“Many actions have been taken to reduce phosphorus coming out of sewage treatment plants, from agricultural land, from developed land and from homeowners,” he said. “Are those [factors] the major contributors to the reduced frequency of HABs? Or could it be increased water coming into the lake, the cold lake temperature starting out in the spring, the wind currents or whatever other factors are involved? That’s anyone’s guess at this point.”
Additionally, Chagnon said the existence of HABs is dependent on secondary factors, too, such as warm water temperatures, a delicate balance of different nutrients and relatively calm waters. Some species of HABs even have the ability to extract nitrogen from the atmosphere under certain conditions, which allows them to thrive even when nutrient levels in the lake are low. There are also HAB species that can release toxins that kill competing species of algae.
“You have to understand not only the conditions, but also the different species you’re dealing with and the interactions between the species to affect the best means of controlling or reducing the prevalence of HABs,” Chagnon said.
He cited studies underway to determine which species of algae are present in the lake and how phosphorus and nitrogen interact with one another, which will help determine ways to address the problem in addition to reducing phosphorus input into the lake.
As the county legislator for District 8, which covers the towns of Ellery and North Harmony and comprises greater than 50 percent of the shoreline along the lake, Chagnon became interested in protecting the lake when he was elected two years ago.
“I realized for my representative responsibilities that, certainly, Chautauqua Lake should be high on my list of priorities,” he said. “So I spent a good amount of time getting up to speed on what was going on in the lake and with the organizations involved.”
A retired businessman who grew up on Chautauqua Lake, Chagnon is now a board member at the Audubon Society and the vice chair for the county Department of Planning & Economic Development, and he has worked for the Chautauqua Lake and Watershed Management Alliance.
Chagnon feels positive about the future of the lake and the lakeside communities’ ability to reduce the prevalence of HABs, particularly because of the recent plans to connect all the homes along the lake to a sewer system.
“I’m optimistic we’ll get the funding to complete the sewer system around the lake,“ he said. “We’re at the stage where we have the plans drawn and we’re pursuing funding, and we’ve been very impressed with the support locally, regionally, statewide and federally.”