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Stakeholders discuss Chautauqua Lake with congressman

BEMUS POINT – Growing up in Chautauqua County, U.S. Rep. Nick Langworthy knows the importance of Chautauqua Lake to the region.

Now as a member of Congress, he wants to know what issues it has and what help the federal government can offer.

On Tuesday, Langworthy brought together a number of stakeholders together at The Lawson Center for a roundtable discussion on the health and safety of Chautauqua Lake. Among those in attendance were elected officials, the county’s watershed coordinator, as well as representatives from Chautauqua Lake Association, the Chautauqua Lake Partnership, Chautauqua Watershed Alliance, Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy, Chautauqua County Visitor’s Bureau, Chautauqua Institution, the Ralph C. Sheldon Foundation, the Lenna Foundation and the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation.

“I believe our fortunes in this county are tied to this lake and the health of this lake. I want to be a full partner in that and spend my time in Congress to do our very best to create a better legacy for this lake and whatever federal funding sources that I can help to secure that,” Langworthy said.

According to fact sheet provided at the meeting, 66% of visitors to Chautauqua County utilize a lake or a waterway, 47% of sales tax of the county is generated in the municipalities immediately surrounding Chautauqua Lake, $282 million is spent annually by tourists to the county, and $3.2 is invested in Chautauqua Lake each year. Of that $3.2 million, $1.7 million is used for watershed projects, $1.3 million is for in-lake projects, and $250,000 is used for lake monitoring efforts.

For spending on the lake, the county has utilized federal, state and area foundation grants, as well as its own budget to provide funding.

Earlier this year, a number of elected officials met with U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer to discuss funding options for Chautauqua Lake and the possibility of dredging it. While at that meeting, Schumer told the delegation that even though they’re in different parties, he would work with Langworthy to bring resources for the lake.

Langworthy acknowledged that and said he and Schumer worked together earlier this year when they brought federal funds to dredge the Barcelona Harbor. They plan to work together for Chautauqua Lake as well.

County Executive PJ Wendel noted that the county has been working with Chautauqua Institution for the Jefferson Project, which is studying harmful algal blooms.

He said there are more proposals which would tackle the weed problem, however the county is limited on funding. That’s why they’ve looked at options like increasing the bed tax revenue and creating a boat user fee.

“There are more efforts out there but we don’t have funding. If there was $10 million would we have $10 million in projects? Probably. And I think there would be $10 million worthwhile projects in (all) the lakes, not only Chautauqua Lake,” he said.

Legislature Chairman Pierre Chagnon said they recognize that Chautauqua Lake has too much phosphorus in it and that’s been their focus as of late.

“We’ve done extraordinary efforts in the last decade to reduce the amount of phosphorus coming into the lake, work in the watershed, work with the sewer treatment plants, work with the septic systems, work with expanding the public sewers,” he said.

But the county doesn’t know if things are improving.

“The Jefferson Project, one of their objectives, is to produce a nutrient balance for the lake and tell us how much phosphorus is coming in, how much is going out, and are we winning or are we still losing,” he said.

One possibility is that the phosphorus is coming up from the sediment, from bad lake management going back to the 1800s when the watershed was clear-cut.

“If that is the biggest source of phosphorus to the lake … we’ve done nothing to address that pool of phosphorus. That’s where the Army Corps of Engineers can be very helpful in advising what is the best way to deal with that,” Chagnon said.

Dredging may be the best option, although Chagnon acknowledged the Army Corps of Engineers may have other recommendations.

Chautauqua Institution has funded about $4.5 million of the Jefferson Project, which has its origins from studying Lake George. Chautauqua County this past year spent $1 million from its American Rescue Plan Act funds, which it received from the federal government for recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation was able to give a one-time gift of $500,000 to the Jefferson Project.

Institution President Michael Hill said the research that comes out of the Jefferson Project will help determine the next step.

“No independent study can match what we will know about this lake if we can finish construction of the smart lake process. That’s not data we’ll own. That’s data that will be available to the state and the county,” he said.

Langworthy said it’s important that all stakeholders work together.

“If Jefferson (Project) is the first step to finding those answers, then that’s where we need to go. But I think it’s important to have the buy-in from everybody at the table, as much as possible,” he said.

He reiterated his support to help improve the health of Chautauqua Lake.

“I want to be a full partner in this lake to help ensure it is enjoyed for generations to come. I’ve had a lot of amazing memories here and hopefully a lot of families can enjoy this forever,” Langworthy said.

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