In 2011-12, Chautauqua County experienced one of the mildest winters on record. While it was a boon to local highway department budgets, the lack of winter snowfall, as well as minimal rainfall this spring, has resulted in extremely low lake levels.
In part, the Warner Dam in Jamestown regulates water level on Chautauqua Lake. Release of water from the dam is calculated to provide water for the Jamestown BPU Electric Plant, flush the Chadakoin River channel, restrict flow to downstream receptors to avoid flooding, and control water level in Chautauqua Lake.
Proper adjustment of the dam is calculated based on the depth of winter snowpack and "normal" spring rain fall over the lake's 180,000 acre watershed. Average dam flow is approximately 7-900 cubic feet a minute, but has been as much as 2,000 cubic feet per minute during extreme weather events. Even if fully open, water from substantial a rainfall event can't pass through the dam fast enough to prevent flooding along Chautauqua Lake.
Managers must actually open the dam in anticipation of major spring rains to minimize flooding potential. This spring, unprecedented low rainfall and minimal snow pack made "normal" dam regulation impossible resulting in extremely low lake level. Low water level coupled with record high temperatures in March fueled extraordinary growth of weeds in both lake basins.
The other unfortunate growth we are witnessing is the increase in "For Sale" signs along the lake's shoreline. Historically, people from Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Toronto elected to come to Chautauqua Lake because of proximity and the water quality of our beautiful lake. Sadly, that is no longer the case. Tourists "vote with their feet" and the increase in lakefront home sales may be only a harbinger of the exodus to come. In a large measure, that exodus is being fueled by excessive weed growth and algae blooms that make recreation on our lake unpleasant, if not impossible.
The lakeshore land area inside the Route 394/430 road ring around Chautauqua Lake makes up only 1 percent of the land mass of the out county, but contributes 26 percent of property taxes. Taxes from these homes and the dollars that tourism brings to local businesses make up a substantial portion of our county tax base, the lack of which would bankrupt our local economy. The homes owned by out of town residents do not require county or local services nor do their owners educate their children here, thus their demand on local budgets is minimal.
Several years ago, county legislators initiated a "Bed Tax" - a portion of which was intended for lake maintenance. Unfortunately, legislators have chosen to use only a miniscule amount of that money to fund lake management. Simply stated, the sum total of the other "economic initiatives" upon which county officials have spent Bed Tax funds cannot begin to compare to the economic engine provided by Chautauqua Lake, an engine we would be wise not to squander.
Appropriately funded lake management including lake weed control would ensure the long-term, best interest of our county residents. Tax dollars generated from a properly maintained lake could provide enhanced funding for the worthy organizations and projects currently funded by Bed Tax revenue.
Since its inception, county legislators have simply used the Bed Tax to supplement the general revenues and fund politically expedient projects.
I call upon our legislature to return the Bed Tax funding to its highest purpose as a dedicated fund for the management of our county's most powerful economic force - Chautauqua Lake. We do not need another tax, simply the most responsible use of the currently available Bed Tax funding.
Tourism is a major factor in our county's economic survival. We cannot take it for granted.
Fletcher E. Ward lives in Bemus Point.