Why Herbicides Are Wrong For Chautuaqua Lake

This Op-Ed appeared in the Jamestown Post-Journal on August 6, 2017.  It continues to be relevant today.  A plan for additional herbicides is in the works for spring of 2020, following on the heels of increasingly large herbicide applications that occurred in 2018 and 2019.

Amelia in the Fall

I am a long-time local biologist, conservationist, community member, and college educator, and have known and loved the waters, wildlife and natural beauty of Chautauqua Lake all my life. I spoke against the public funding of herbicides at the recent July 26, 2017 Chautauqua County Legislature Meeting, as did eleven others. In a recent editorial (Sunday July 30), I was quoted out of context and my true message was unfortunately lost. 

Please let me be clear: I am speaking in opposition to the unnecessary application of the herbicides 2,4-D (Navigate) and Endothall (Aquathol K) to Bemus Bay and elsewhere in Chautauqua Lake. 

How do I justify my position? 

Our lake is an old lake, rich in plant diversity and abundance of living things. Its well-established diversity of aquatic plants supports and stabilizes the natural communities within and along its shores, holds its sediments in place and provides food, oxygen and critical habitat for countless creatures. All are woven together in an amazing web of interdependency, complexity and connection.

The Chautauqua Lake Partnership’s publicized goal of reducing weed and algal mats, “sludge” and disagreeable odors by applying herbicides targeting weeds, rather than most algae and blue-green bacteria, will likely be ineffective and is not an ecologically-sound solution. Dying and decaying macrophytes debilitated by herbicides will release additional nutrients into the water column for many weeks. Fewer macrophytes mean less shading and reduced competition for nutrients, which in turn will enhance, not reduce, algal and cyanobacteria growth. Herbicide treatment will likely be counter-productive in addressing the challenges of hazardous algal blooms and their toxins as well.

In 2019, herbicides were applied to 388 acres in the south basin of Chautauqua Lake. Experts estimate that up to five times that area was affected because of “drift.”

The recent (2017) application of herbicides in Bemus Bay was not in accordance with the guidance entailed within the Chautauqua Lake Macrophyte Management Strategy (MMS). The MMS recognizes that Bemus Bay contains natural shorelines, unique plant communities, game fish spawning/rearing areas and several environmentally sensitive areas where herbicide use is restricted. Herbicide application is specifically NOT allowed in game fish spawning and rearing zones prior to July 1. Unfortunately, and inexplicably, the permit allowed both Aquathol K® and Navigate® (2,4-D) to be applied within a designated fish-spawning and rearing area (Zone 154) in Bemus Bay on June 26th, during the restricted period when egg spawning and young fish were present. 

The MMS specifies that use of 2,4-D (Navigate ®) is not recommended for the management of rooted macrophytes in Chautauqua Lake, and is not allowed in any environmentally sensitive areas. In spite of this, according to the DEC permit, 2,4-D was applied in four zones in the Bay. Note that 2,4-D (active ingredient in Navigate®) is a systemic, synthetic herbicide intended in New York state only for emergent aquatic plants, not the diversity of submerged native and non-native macrophytes known to grow in Bemus Bay. According to several sources, this herbicide has moderate acute toxicity, is a potential groundwater contaminant, possible carcinogen and probable endocrine disruptor/estrogen mimic in certain amphibians and people. 2,4-D has been shown to reduce the rate of survival in ducks and waterfowl, is toxic to some fish and causes mortality in crayfish, many mussel species and certain insects and zooplankton. 

The other herbicide used, Aquathol K®, is known to be toxic to mammals. The product labels of both herbicides indicate that fish deaths may occur due to suffocation as weeds die, decompose and deplete oxygen. The fact that these herbicides were permitted by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to be used during fish spawning and rearing season, and in a designated spawning and rearing zone, is regrettable. 

Herbicides were applied in June of 2018 and May of 2019, in direct conflict with the MMS principle which states that herbicides should only be applied after July 1 to protect spawning and young-of-the-year fish.

According to its pesticide product label, besides targeting the invasive Eurasian milfoil, Aquathol K® kills ecologically valuable aquatic plants including coontail, native pondweeds, Najas, and water stargrass. Navigate® (2,4-D) targets milfoil and water stargrass, but may also impact white and yellow water lilies, elodea, duckweeds and coontail. Long-term toxicities on many aquatic animal species are unknown, although depending upon concentration and exposure time, toxicity and mortality are indicated for zooplankton (Daphnia), amphibia, crustaceans, insects (midges), molluscs and fish. 

No known studies have been done to explore the impacts and possible synergistic action of combining 2,4-D and Aquathol K® treatments. Aquathol K is “not acutely toxic” but may, depending on application rates and exposure, impact survival of crustacea, certain fish (bluegill, walleye), damsel and dragonflies, certain molluscs, and zooplankton. Clearly, these herbicides may have wide-ranging, harmful and unknown impacts on our lake’s web of life. 

Herbicides are poisons. Just because they are registered with the Environmental Protection Agency and permitted by the DEC, and a certified lake management company like SOlitude applies them, doesn’t make them safe. Interactions between pesticides have not been studied, nor have long-term, chronic effects. The Toxicity Word on the Aquathol K® label is “Danger,” while that for Navigate® (2,4-D) is “Caution.”

EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention notes that Endothall (Aquathol K®) is a caustic chemical, skin sensitizer, and extreme irritant by the acute oral and ocular routes of administration. Dogs are particularly sensitive to endothall toxicity. 

2,4-D is a skin, eye and respiratory irritant that can lead to headache, vomiting, diarrhea and kidney failure. It is a possible carcinogen (listed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and associated with a slight increased risk for non-Hodgkins lymphoma in high exposure populations), potential groundwater contaminant, and suspected endocrine disruptor (www.pesticideinfo.org ). Studies are ongoing and the health implications are not yet clear (Wisconsin DNR 2,4-D Fact Sheet).

People, please be careful what you ask for. Because there remain so many unknowns about these chemicals, I urge all those who love the Lake to please use the precautionary principle in decision making. A greater degree of informed awareness and action is critical, not quick-fix, herbicide-based solutions that are temporary at best, and may lead to unwanted health and ecological disruption in the long run.

Rebecca L. Nystrom, Professor of Biology (retired), Member of the Chautauqua Lake and Watershed Management Alliance Science Advisory Committee, and past member of the Macrophyte Management Strategy Technical Review Committee.

A Little Bitter, A Little Sweet

This essay was originally published in the Jamestown Post-Journal on November 9, 2019.

Miller’s Farm Stand at Guppy’s Restaurant, Bemus Point, NY

Where I live, the arrival of autumn is always a little bitter and a little sweet.  Sometimes the weather is warm well into October, although a hint of chill is often riding on the tail of a warm breeze. Some years, Labor Day weekend is so rainy and cold that many of our summer neighbors decide to just pack up early and go home.

The leaves slowly start to turn, but when the sun comes out, bees buzz on my tree hydrangea. In early autumn, it is loaded with huge flower heads that are in full bloom and just beginning to turn pink.  The fields are filled with webs in the early morning fog, a patchwork of intricate designs made each night yet rarely revealed.  

We get spectacular sunsets here on Chautauqua Lake, in Western New York, and most of us have summer sunset pictures clogging our phones and serving as screensavers.  But the sunsets in the fall are more brilliant and more vivid than they are in the summer.  The daytime skies are different.  The light is softer, thinning. The shapes of the clouds are different this time of year, too.  Big, towering cumulonimbus clouds rise high above the lake some fall days, brilliantly lit harbingers of bad weather to come. 

Sweet corn dwindles then disappears from the farm stands.  The peaches go soft soon after they’re picked, and the tomatoes go spotty and then stop coming at all.  But then the stands overflow with pumpkins and all sorts of squash.  Apples in seemingly endless varieties fill bins and bushel baskets.  Fresh cider is pressed in orchards, and the local stuff shows up on supermarket shelves.  The air smells like smoke, and leaves.  And the air in Westfield, over the hill on Lake Erie smells of grapes as the huge harvesters comb the rows of vines.

The seasonal restaurants are closed, and those that are open year-round begin changing their menus.  Halloween decorations are up at the Whiskey Hill Saloon in Cassadaga.  We get a kick out of the haunted place and love to hear the screams of the uninitiated.  Red’s Best Pancake House opens for a few weeks to use up the rest of this year’s syrup on all-you-can-eat pancakes that they serve with homemade sausage and applesauce.  They open again in the spring when the sap is running in the maple trees and they start production again. Fall craft brews show up on beer menus and on taps; Great Lakes Oktoberfest, EBC’s Fall Festival Lager, and our kids’ favorite, Pumking from Southern Tier.

Guppy’s, one of our favorite neighborhood restaurants, starts serving Christy’s bread pudding again, along with the fresh made snickerdoodle that is a cross between a cookie and a cake; it’s worth the wait. Weekend specials shift to heartier fare:  meatloaf, pierogis, the annual end-of-season clam bake, and my favorite, wiener schnitzel with spaetzel and warm applesauce. I was skeptical about the schnitzel. I’d tried it a couple of times at other places where the veal was tough and tasteless, the gravy over-salted and too floury. But at the recommendation of a friend, we tried it two years ago.

As soon as we got out of the car, we ran into Christy.  She and her husband, Doug, own and run Guppy’s, and Christy works hard to perfect menu items and to come up with tasty specials on a regular basis.   I don’t get a chance to spend much time with Christy, but a couple of times a year, we get together with Rose Stage and Candy Jett to grab a meal or do some Christmas shopping.  Like Christy, Rose is in the hospitality business, so summers are really busy and we don’t see each other enough.  

Miller, Doug and Christy’s son was there, too, right out front where he set up his “store.”  Miller’s store is a farm stand, where Miller is selling pumpkins, gourds and maple syrup from “Miller Farms.”  He taps Rose and Paul Stage’s maple trees from the property surrounding the Maple Springs Lake Side Inn, and then his dad, Doug, boils the sap down to make the syrup.

Maple Syrup, Miller style

 Miller started kindergarten that year, just a couple of weeks before.  He told me that when he grows up he wants to be a geologist or a paleontologist.  Christy said that he says he wants to be a farmer, too, even though he already has plans to go to college at the Colorado School of Mines.

Miller gave us a pumpkin and I bought a bottle of syrup while Christy ran inside to put our name on the waiting list.  Even when the season is over, there is often a brief wait at Guppy’s.  A lot of meals have been turned out of the little kitchen there since Doug and Christy have taken over, and the food is consistently good.  The beer is even better, according to one of my neighbors.

 That evening while we waited, I recalled being at Guppy’s right after Miller was born.  We were sitting outside in the enclosed and heated patio on a night much like that night.  Christy came over with Miller, a three-week-old infant in swaddling.  I held him in my lap while Christy attended to something else.  I hadn’t held a newborn in a long time, and before I knew it, my teardrops were falling on Miller’s blanket.   

“I didn’t know you were such a mush,” my friend Evelyn said.

 “I didn’t know I would be this overwhelmed by this baby,” I said.  “He’s just perfect.  A miracle.”

After a while, Jeff and I got seated at our favorite table in the bar.  It’s the table nearest the door, and during the holidays, it’s the table with the leg lamp from A Christmas Story lighting it.  It’s a great table for both seeing and being seen.  We both ordered the wiener schnitzel.  We waved at acquaintances, visited with our neighbor Joe who was waiting for his meal, chatted with my pharmacist, and watched people we didn’t know come and go.  

“I love listening to the people who are new here talk about this place,” Jeff said.  “They’re the kind of people that this place needs.  Good for the economy, and they remind me of what it felt like when we first started coming here.”

 Our food came and it was delicious.  The veal was perfectly done, tender, with a crisp coating.  Served on spaetzel, which is sort of a cross between a noodle and a dumpling, the dish was drizzled with gravy and topped with crispy onions.  I could identify carrot slices in the gravy, and onions, and knew it was one of those Julia-Child-Boeuf-Bourguignon-simple-ingredient-perfectly-cooked-and-served-with-love sorts of things that you don’t get very often in a restaurant, at least around here.  It was wonderful, and I look forward to having it every fall.

I always get nostalgic this time of year and am often surprised by the intensity of my feelings.  Perhaps it’s because the weather here is so extreme, and the summer so short.  Maybe it’s because yesterday Miller was just a baby and now, he’s in school, playing the violin in the Chautauqua Youth Symphony.  Or because suddenly our own children are well into adulthood, and we’re grandparents.  Or because we’ve weathered the losses and victories of another year around the sun.

Maybe my sense of nostalgia is because that wiener schnitzel was so good it reminded me of every fall dish I’ve ever eaten, and it reminded me to count my blessings, and to remember to be glad to be alive right here, right now, in this beautiful place.