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June on Lake Hopatcong: Water Chestnut Awareness Month

water scouts - rosettes 2This year the Knee Deep Club is moving to transition our WATER SCOUTS Project, where we’ve been working to ensure that Lake Hopatcong does not get impacted by the Water Chestnut plant that is wreaking havoc on water bodies across the state, into a more sustainable model.  Before we explain the changes to our program, here’s a little history for any reader who was not aware of our efforts.

In 2009 we became aware of a serious problem downstream at Lake Musconetcong where a significant portion of the lake’s surface had been completely covered by a non native aquatic plant called Water Chestnut (trapa natans).  This is not the plant that is used in oriental cuisine.   When this plant enters a water body it has explosive growth, depletes oxygen levels, chokes out existing plant species, and makes all recreation activities, including fishing, nearly impossible.  My initial reaction when I saw tens of acres of heavy matted Water Chestnut, was we have to make sure this never reaches our lake.  

Believing, like most non-native invasive plants, that water chestnut was spread primarily through human activity, I wrote an article for the Knee Deep Club’s Around The Lake newsletter titled “No Hitch Hikers Allowed”.   It went over best practices used in boating to avoid spreading unwanted non–native plants.  It was picked up by other publications after which I was invited to join a statewide water chestnut task force run through Rutgers and DEP.  There I learned more about the plant’s life cycle, how it is spread and the terrible impacts it could have on a water body.  I shared that knowledge with the Knee Deep Club Board and we decided we can’t wait, we needed to find out if it is anywhere in our lake.

It was an urgent issue because if just one seed found its way into our lake it could have a terrible impact.  It would emerge late the following spring.  From that single seed a sprout would reach the surface and grow a small cluster of leaves called a rosette, by the end of the growing season a single seed would support 15-20 Rosettes.  Underneath each rosette it grows 15-20 seeds.  So one single seed left undisturbed could drop anywhere from 200-400 seeds at the end of the first season.  So a seed creates a mass about the size of a picnic table, next year a tennis court and the following year possibly as much as several football fields!  To make it seem more like some sci-fi movie the seeds that are about the size of a large acorn, have four very sharp barbs that easily attach to things like ropes, nets, clothing and of particular concern large waterfowl.  That is how it could be transported to Lake Hopatcong.

Early on the Knee Deep Club realized the scope of this project and the type of equipment best suited to search it out were beyond our means.  We reached out to and were warmly received by other long established groups, including Lake Hopatcong Yacht Club (LHYC), Antique & Classic Boat Society (LHACBS) and the Garden State Yacht Club (GSYC).  We organized a search of the entire lake’s shoreline that involved 25 teams and 70 paddlers (Kayak & Canoes).  Everything we did in the beginning also had a dual purpose of educating the public about this serious threat.  We developed a brand and called our search teams The LAKE HOPATCONG WATER SCOUTS and had everyone wear bright yellow caps (generously donated by LHACBS) with that name on it.  We held several training sessions, that along with the lake wide search got great coverage in our local media.

water scouts - woodport 1We allowed for a 10 day search period and within the first hours of the first day we got a report that plants were found, flagged and photographed in Landing Channel.  My heart sunk, but in hindsight it was a double edge sword.  Obviously we would have preferred to come up clean, but if it was here we absolutely wanted to know it.  But it had a tremendous side benefit.  Once those photos of the plants were being shared amongst the WATER SCOUTS it really enthused our paddlers.  People who had reported “all clear” went back and searched again.  Others who hadn’t started their search had friends join them and I know that every area received a much more intensive search because of that heart stopping initial sighting.

Every other area came back all clear.  We pulled a couple of dozen plants out of Landing Channel that first day and then went back the next week and found another dozen that we may have missed because of all the algae on the lake or maybe hadn’t reached the surface yet.  We continued to monitor that area and searched one more time with 9 paddlers and it remained clear.

Last year we duplicated the lake wide search and had to make some adjustments because of schedule conflicts, and some WATER SCOUTS covered two search sites.  But, good news, everything came back all clear, including Landing Channel!

The problem though, is that the threat never goes away.  The largest colony of Water Chestnut in the state is still just one mile away, as the goose flies, in Lake Musconetcong.  There is only one bright spot in this scary story.  The plant is an annual and if we find it and remove it before August the seeds aren’t viable.  Even if they break off and drop, the seeds aren’t ripe enough to grow the next year.  Plus, for two years now with no water chestnut known in the lake, we’re confident we’re not going to find some massive colony and that is a big plus.

kdc water chestnut - 4But in the long run we have to make this effort just become part of the culture of the lake community. That is why we’re designating June Water Chestnut Awareness Month. Also, we want to make it more user friendly for the paddlers and the organizers.  We want to get to a place, where for the most part, it runs itself.  First step is, we are expanding the search time frame to an entire month so volunteers won’t have schedule conflicts.  We are asking all scouts to cover the areas they covered last year between June 15th & July 15th , instead of the previous 10 day window.  I’ve contact all of the WATER SCOUTS and told them just reply if you can’t participate this year and as of right now everybody is on board.

To make the management end a little easier I’m asking people to only contact me after their search if they have found any plants.  After two years I’ve received 49 reports forms & maps back marked “all clear” and one with plants found.  I should have figured that one out by the second year.

We do want to increase our efforts for the high-risk areas.  Not just ones that have the right conditions, but ones that are less developed with fewer homes and boat traffic. We’ve had good public out reach and I think the plant would have a hard time rearing it’s ugly little head near most people’s dock without being noticed.  We are also developing SWAT Teams to cover areas like Landing Channel, The Jefferson Canals, Liffy Is. and northern Woodpoort.  We have some teams set up and are still developing others, if you’d like to help out contact me direct at tim.clancy@verizon.net.  The remaining search teams will be on a weekday in mid July with details still being worked out.

water chestnut 2As individuals you can all help.  Go to the Knee Deep Club or the lake Commission’s website and see pictures there so you can learn to identify the plant.  If you think you’ve spotted it on the lake contact me or the Commission to report it.  Leave the plant in place and flag it with something like a piece of tape so it’s easy for us to find and confirm.  Also take pictures of the plant and the area you found it.  The WATER SCOUTS carry pink survey tape to mark it, because it’s hard to find a plant or even a group based just on a physical description of the area.  So find it, flag it, photograph it and report it.

Just so folks understand how important this is, let’s look at Lake Champlain.  They’ve had a water chestnut problem for decades now and have spent over 10 million dollars on it.  They feel they’ve turned the corner.  They’ve been able to limit it to 69 sites and 2,700 acres of coverage.  The amount they remove each year by hand pulls and harvesting equipment has remained pretty constant at just over 1,000 tons each season!  I know they’re much larger than us, but I don’t want our lake to experience any success like that.

As a lake community we all have to buy in to this.  Get informed, visit the websites mentioned and just remember; Know What to Look For & Know What To Do. 

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