Keeping an eye on backcountry water

LAKE PLACID – Connery Pond is a great place to spend the afternoon searching for aquatic invasive species.

The hulking mass of Whiteface Mountain dominates the view from the southern shore of the pond, where Adirondack Mountain Club government relations and conservation associates Cathy Pedler and Paul Gallery demonstrated what monitoring a backcountry waterbody entails.

The pair had two inflatable rafts, some sampling equipment and waterproof pages that detailed how to identify potential vegetative threats to Connery Pond. Most people have heard of Eurasian watermilfoil, a prolific plant that has been found in more than 50 Adirondack ponds, but there are other species of concern, like frog bit, fanwort and water chestnut.

“We expect that on most of these ponds we’re not going to find anything, but negative results are also important,” Pedler said.

Aquatic plants don’t go questing for new lakes to call home. They’re brought there, often on the equipment of unsuspecting paddlers and divers. The best way to find the invasive organisms is to head out on the water, so Pedler and Gallery paddled around the perimeter of Connery Pond, looking for any of the offenders on their most-wanted list.

But there’s a lot of water in the Adirondacks, and most of it isn’t easy to get to.

That’s where the Backcountry Water Monitoring Project comes in. The effort was launched this summer via a series of free educational workshops and is a collaboration of several organizations: the Adirondack Mountain Club, the Ausable River Association, Paul Smith’s College’s Adirondack Watershed Institute, the Adirondack Chapter of The Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program and the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s New York Natural Heritage Program.

The Lake Champlain Basin Program and the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission are funding the project.

Participants in the program adopt a waterbody on the New York side of the Lake Champlain water basin, which they must visit at least once a year between mid-June and mid-September.

Volunteers with APIPP already monitor some waterbodies in the Park, so those were left off of the list. That left about 200 potential candidates for monitoring.

To narrow those down, Gallery assigned a numeric value to each of the unmonitored waterbodies within the water basin.

The value was based on the potential for an aquatic invasive invasion, with higher values being a higher potential. An unnamed pond in the middle of the woods wouldn’t make the cut as high priority.

“I selected all of the waterbodies that were within 100 meters of a road, a trail, or some sort of access where people could come to them, with the thought process being we are the largest vector of invasive species movement,” Gallery said. “If people are continuously visiting these waterbodies, it’s very likely that these will be the ones exposed to an invasion.”

Connery Pond, with its dirt road access and shoreline properties, was an ideal candidate for Gallery’s list. Participants can also adopt ponds that aren’t considered high priority.

“If it’s a pond they know about or a place they go, or it’s near where they live, they can monitor it,” Pedler said. “The goal is to get people looking at all of the ponds. We have them prioritized hoping those get adopted first.”

To adopt a waterbody, citizen science volunteers attended one of two free training workshops hosted by ADK, APIPP and the Ausable River Association. More workshops will happen next year.

“We had 33 waterbodies adopted this year, and we’ll get to have looked at about 15 of those,” Pedler said. “There are quite a few volunteers who weren’t able to get out this year, but they’re ready to go in the spring. Our second training was kind of late in the season, Aug. 30.”

The trainers teach participants where to look for invasive species and how to identify them using photos and illustrations, like those on the waterproof sheets Pedler and Gallery had at Connery Pond, which have identifying features labeled. They also use plant samples in water so trainees can see the organism as it might look in the wild.

Citizen scientists aren’t expected to be experts. If they’re uncertain about a species’ identity they can take a photo or collect a sample, mark the plant’s location on a GPS device and send it to TNC’s Erin Vennie-Vollrath for identification.

If a new infestation of an aquatic invasive species is found, the goal of the program is to respond quickly.

“APIPP and APIPP’s other partners can go to that pond and begin the process of pulling the invasive out before it gets a hold,” Pedler said. “This is the early detection part, and the quick response comes next.”

Gallery said rapid response becomes increasingly imperative as new invasive species approach the region. Of particular concern is hydrilla, which is in the state but hasn’t been found in the Adirondacks.

“Basically, once an invasive species is established it seems to be accepted that it’s too late at that point,” Gallery said. “It’s amazing how much they can take over.”