Multi-year milfoil removal underway
SARANAC INN — The Upper Saranac Lake Foundation, which has been in a more than decade-long battle against invasive milfoil, is back in the business of harvesting tons of the devastating aquatic plant. This time at the source.
The group first began harvesting Eurasian Water Milfoil in the early 2000s after the plant became established in Upper Saranac Lake. The lake’s milfoil density has dropped considerably thanks to the long-running eradication effort, and that has freed up time and money for the foundation to harvest milfoil in Fish Creek Ponds, which feed into the much larger Upper Saranac Lake. The ponds are a hotbed of activity, with the state’s largest public campground lining the shore.
Guy Middleton, lake manager for the foundation, said the group expects to harvest both Eurasian and Variable-Leaf milfoil in the ponds for about 20 weeks, which will be spread out over this fall and the next two years.
“It’s certainly not attractive for recreation,” Middleton said of the invasive milfoils. There are native species of milfoil that aren’t a nuisance, but the invasives can quickly out-compete native aquatic plants to form huge beds that are nearly impenetrable.
The foundation began harvesting invasive milfoil on the upper lake in 2004 after raising more than $1.5 million, most of which came from people who own homes and property on the lake. Middleton said the effort has been a huge success.
“The first year we removed 18 tons (36,000 pounds) of milfoil with 30 divers, now we’re at a maintenance level,” he said. “This year, over 15 weeks with three divers, we’ve harvested just over 300 pounds.
“It’s really considered a rare plant out on the lake.”
The process for harvesting milfoil is labor-intensive due to the plant’s ability to reproduce easily. Milfoil grows tall quickly, and the sprouts what are known as adventitious roots all along the main stem. This means that if any part of the plant breaks off, it can easily start growing as a new plant.
Fish Creek Campground, which has 355 campsites and sees around 120,000 campers over its six-month operating period each year, dots the shore of the pond. Many campers bring motor boats to the campground due to its easy access to the larger lake, but motor boats are one of the main ways that milfoil reproduces.
The plant was likely introduced into area waterways from some sort of vessel, and boats and trailers could be inadvertently moving it between lakes. Also, since milfoil can reproduce just from breaking off, a motor boat prop going through a bed of milfoil could create hundreds of new plants.
Middleton said the new project is aimed at knocking down the milfoil density to a maintenance level, just like in Upper Saranac.
“This project here is to expand our operation into the campground, into one of our sources where invasives are feeding (into) Upper Saranac Lake,” he said. “Three year intensive harvesting program, and then we’ll incorporate this into our regular maintenance plan.”
The $100,000 grant, which was awarded by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, was bolstered by tens of thousands of dollars in donations from lake shore owners.
Middleton said despite the drastic reduction in milfoil in the upper lake, the foundation still spends about $100,000 per year on maintenance harvesting.
Right now, the foundation has two teams of divers in the water. The divers are employed by Aquatic Invasive Management, which has a contract with the foundation for milfoil removal.
Each crew consists of two divers and a top-water person who stays close by in a kayak. The divers use a “hooka rig” which feeds air to the divers through long hoses. Since the divers aren’t using SCUBA tanks, they can stay under longer and be more efficient at harvesting.
The divers use mesh bags to collect the milfoil, and when a bag is full the diver hands it off to the top-water person, who then puts it in a larger motor boat. Middleton said they assume a drip-dry weight of 25 pounds per bag, meaning that in 2004 divers filled more than 1,400 bags.
The harvested milfoil can be safely disposed of on land, and Middleton said it makes good, nutrient-rich compost that many farmers like.
Chris Critelli, who hails from New York Mills, near Utica, and was working the top-water job on Monday, said there’s more to the harvesting method than just swimming around stuffing plants in a bag.
“There’s a lot of line swimming in this type of work,” Critelli said. “You spend a lot of time doing passes on a grid to make sure it’s really clean.”
Critelli said he’s done milfoil harvesting and professional diving for about eight years, but just came back to the area this year after getting his start here almost a decade ago.
“I just came back this year with them, and I actually see the progression of these lakes,” he said. “Years ago, we had an eight-man crew up here and now it’s down to just two people. We used to pull thousands of pounds out of the lake, now it’s down to hundreds. You definitely see a huge difference. Sometimes you get these lakes and it just feels like you’re fighting a losing battle. But when you start to see progress, you know you’re doing something good.”