For 18 years, ecologist Robert Johnson has filed reports on Chautauqua Lake in dry, analytical language, logging the number and density of plant species in the shallow lake bed. Lakes are political, Johnson knew, and he didn’t want to squabble with local officials or residents over how they managed the plants.
But late last summer, Johnson boated out to conduct his usual survey. And in sections of the lake, he dredged up little more than sediment.
Johnson now finds himself tangling with lake politics in a way he’d long hoped to avoid, together with a coalition of environmental and conservation groups. In early January, his firm, Racine-Johnson Aquatic Ecologists, published a blistering report linking spring 2019 herbicide applications along the lake’s shoreline to significant plant death in the south basin.
Johnson, who has conducted annual plant surveys for the Chautauqua Lake Association since 2002, had major concerns about the health of the lake ecosystem after the application. Not only did he see fewer native plants, which serve as habitats for fish and other organisms, but he feared the lake would potentially become turbid over time if plants weren’t there to compete with algae and bacteria.
Since Johnson published his report, however, the facts – as well as Johnson himself – have come under attack. Lake ecologists and other observers say these sorts of battles are common, both in New York State and across the country. At a time of growing polarization and sinking trust in traditional authorities, neither science nor scientists have escaped the politicization of their work, which is generally meant to be unbiased.