Milfoil foiled

FISH CREEK – Ten years ago, the waters of Upper Saranac Lake were choked with Eurasian watermilfoil.

Now, after countless hours and millions of dollars have been spent to pull it up by hand, the invasive plant is finally on the run.

“It’s to a point now where we feel that it’s almost hard to find on the lake,” said Guy Middleton, lake manager for the Upper Saranac Lake Foundation, the group that’s led and funded the lake’s milfoil eradication program. “We’ve been very successful.”

Middleton highlighted the foundation’s efforts to a group of local residents, seasonal camp owners and visitors Monday during a paddle of Fish Creek Ponds, one of the major points of entry for milfoil in Upper Saranac. The trip was one in a series of events being held across the Adirondacks and, for the first time this year, the rest of the state, as part of Invasive Species Awareness Week.

It comes as those battling invasives say awareness and momentum has been building about the environmental and economic impacts of invasive species.

“There are so many initiatives working in a coordinated way in the state that we haven’t seen before,” said Hilary Smith, who lives in Saranac Lake, directs the Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program and chairs the statewide Invasive Species Advisory Committee. “I’m really encouraged. Certainly there’s much more to do, but I think we have a great understanding among the public, the Legislature, our state agencies and the governor’s office that we can all work together and get the job done.”

Upper Saranac

Ten years ago, Eurasian watermilfoil was one of the most prominent plants on Upper Saranac, a 5,200-acre lake with 44 miles of state and privately owned shoreline.

“It was overrunning shallow areas,” Middleton said. “It was prohibiting recreation, cutting down on property values. It was just a big environmental impact on the lake.”

The Upper Saranac Lake Foundation subsequently raised $1.5 million and launched a three-year program to combat milfoil. In 2004, three teams of 10-person dive crews removed 18 tons of milfoil from the lake using a technique called hand harvesting, basically pulling the plant up by its roots.

The program has continued each year since, although Middleton said the foundation has cut down on the amount of money it’s spent on dive crews because less milfoil is being found. Last year, crews removed just 760 pounds from the lake.

“We’re now down to a three-dive-crew team: two in the water, one on the surface,” Middleton said. “They’re here for 20 weeks out of the summer. Next year we hope to cut that down to less weeks and less costs.”

Divers will go to either known or probable areas of milfoil growth in the lake or areas that Middleton has marked on a map with buoys after seeing plants from the surface of the water. The foundation also has a rapid response system. It has passed out cards with pictures of the plant to store owners who can call or email Middleton if they think they’ve seen milfoil.

“The key is early detection,” Middleton said. “The earlier that you determine you have an invasive in the water, the easier it is to remove or manage.”

On the water

Middleton led the group to a spot on Fish Creek Ponds, east of the state Route 30 bridge near the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Fish Creek Campground, where a milfoil bed could be seen in the lake from the surface of the water. He noted that the foundation doesn’t harvest milfoil from this part of Fish Creek and other upstream waters that are still thick with the invasive plant; its territory ends at the bridge.

“You can see where the flowers are starting to poke through the surface, which you don’t ever see on Upper Saranac because we harvest them before they get that big,” he said. “You can see how this would create dense mats that would prevent a lot of recreation and detract from your property value if it was all around the lake.”

Middleton then led the group under the bridge to meet up with the three-person dive team from Aquatic Invasive Management of AuSable Forks, the company the foundation contracts with to remove milfoil from Upper Saranac. The divers – Chris Burnham, Kurt Bramer and Kelvin Reynolds – demonstrated their work and fielded questions from the group.

Jim Rothschild, who owns a seasonal camp on Bartlett Carry Road, was among those who took part in Monday’s paddle.

“We’ve done a lot of boating on the lake, and we see various plants, and we’re never really quite sure if it’s milfoil or not,” Rothschild said. “We just felt that seeing it for real might help a lot, and it did. Now, hopefully we won’t see it, but if we do, we’ll know and tell people, ‘Here it is. Get rid of it.'”

Although the hand-harvesting campaign has been successful in removing milfoil from Upper Saranac, Middleton said the program likely won’t ever cease.

“It’s important that we continue to manage it because we know the minute that we stop, it will come right back to where it was in 2004,” he said.

Big picture

Smith has been working on invasive species issues in the Adirondacks and New York for the past 12 years. She said a lot of the recommendations of a 12-point plan created in 2005 for New York to better combat invasive species are now being put into effect, including the formation of state agency and non-government advisory groups, management partnerships around the state and a statewide invasive species mapping database.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a press release Monday announcing New York’s first-ever Invasive Species Awareness Week, which started Sunday and runs through Saturday. The week includes a slew of public outreach and education initiatives, like Monday’s paddle of Fish Creek Ponds, “that help educate people about invasives and ways to stop their spread,” according to Smith. A list of events is posted at www.nyis.info/blog.

The governor’s release didn’t mention a pair of invasive species bills the Legislature approved in June that Cuomo has yet to sign. The Aquatic Invasive Species Act would require boaters to drain their boat’s bilge water when entering and leaving launch sites, as well as to remove visible vegetation or animals from boats and gear. The law, which carries fines for violations, would be enforced by the DEC. Another bill would order DEC to create universal signage to warn against the threat of aquatic invasives, and to install the signs at all state boat launches.

New state regulations took effect last month requiring boats using DEC boat put-ins to be cleaned and drained before they’re launched.

While there’s been support in Albany for battling invasives, Smith said more funding is needed for prevention and control efforts through the state’s Environmental Protection Fund.

“The lake communities that have aquatic invasive species are struggling with the cost of management, and it largely has fallen to the shoulders of municipalities and shore owners,” Smith said. “That’s why we’re trying to shift the paradigm from being reactionary to being more proactive and trying to invest in prevention measures to protect those waterways that aren’t invaded from becoming invaded.”

The state, and the Park, continue to be threatened by new invasives. In the Adirondacks, Smith said there are two her group is on high alert for now: spiny water flea, which has been found in southern Adirondack waterways and can cling to fishing gear and hide in bilge water, and hydrilla, an aquatic invasive plant that isn’t in the Park yet but is found elsewhere in New York.