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Danger at the boat launch

State comptroller audit finds DEC invasive species program needs improvement

From left, Julien Desmangles, Larry Gingell and Sarah Calzada surface from Follensby Clear Pond July 29, each holding a 25-pound bag of milfoil they pulled from the pond floor. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

The state comptroller’s office has asked the state Department of Environmental Conservation to ramp up its efforts to stop the spread of aquatic invasive species. Several issues with DEC’s boat launch monitoring and prevention programs came to light in a comptroller audit of the DEC.

It is unclear how much of this audit focused on the Adirondacks. The examples where a few places were named were not in the Adirondacks.

The audit, conducted over the past two years, found that the DEC’s Bureau of Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health has spent a lot of time and money fighting the spread of invasive species such as Eurasian watermilfoil, zebra mussles and hydrilla, but there are gaps in its methods and areas where surveillance can be increased.

“The agency has undertaken important steps to address (invasive species), but my auditors found several areas where DEC could strengthen its practices to identify non-native plants and animals and stop them from spreading,” State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli wrote in a press release. “I urge DEC officials to follow our recommendations to protect New Yorkers and keep our precious natural resources intact.”

Auditors visited boat launches and found instances of stewards not inspecting all watercraft launched or retrieved at some sites. They also found inadequate signage.

The audit found that stewards are essential to assuring most boats are checked. Auditors found that when no stewards are present, only around half of the hundreds of boaters they watched launch and exit the waters performed any type of preventative measure, some leaving with visible debris of possible invasive species. This was in high-risk waters, where milfoil or zebra mussels are found on around a quarter of the craft leaving the waters.

The audit chalks this up to a “severe lack of signage.”

“According to the Department’s boat launch data, there had been AIS (aquatic invasive species) sightings at 42 of the 53 sites where AIS signage was not conspicuously displayed or not present at all,” the audit says.

The audit also focused on areas of improvements the DEC can make in reducing the spread of invasive species during construction, by requiring permits to focus on this issue. It also made suggestions on how to improve early detection of invasive species.

Improvements

The audit recommends the DEC better communicate duties and responsibilities to stewards and boat owners, monitor steward performance better and coordinate more with entities it contracts to improve preventive efforts at public boat launches.

In response to the audit, DEC officials generally agreed with the audit’s findings and said they would make changes, though in some cases these were not very specific.

In a response to the audit, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said the department will strengthen its internal monitoring of boat stewards to ensure they are performing their assigned duties and encourage communication with boaters.

Monitoring and preventing invasive species spread at boat launches is a monumental task. There are hundreds of boat launches around the state. The DEC contracts out to other entities for stewards at some of these launches.

The audit says there are stewards at 194 of the 837 statewide launches. The DEC is responsible for 158 of these launches and contracts privately for the rest. In the Adirondacks, for instance, the Adirondack Watershed Institute at Paul Smith’s College runs boat wash stations and has stewards at dozens of DEC boat launches.

Fourty-two of the 194 are deemed as high-risk, meaning Eurasian watermilfoil or zebra mussles are found on a quarter of craft leaving the waters.

According to the audit, the DEC did a record 242,000 watercraft inspections in 2019.

Still, auditors said there are areas being overlooked and that stewards are not checking every boat that passes them each day.

Auditors visited 30 of the high-risk sites, 14 of which are the DEC’s responsibility. They found stewards at 11 sites; seven of these were the DEC’s responsibility.

“We found stewards were not inspecting all watercraft launched or retrieved at five of the seven sites,” the audit says.

In some cases, stewards did not approach all boaters they saw leaving the waterbody to ensure their vessels had been cleaned, some stewards had their view of the launch blocked, and the audit found one steward did not record all inspections.

At sites with no stewards, the DEC relies on signs to tell boaters what to do and why.

Auditors said they saw that at high-risk sites while stewards were not present, around 50% of people launching or removing boats did not perform any preventative measures, and another 45% did limited measures before leaving.

In a press release reacting to the audit, Adirondack Council Executive Director William Janeway praised the DEC’s last decade of funding boat inspection and decontamination stations, but he said that each year they still find new and spreading species in the waters.

“As Comptroller DiNapoli’s audit points out, unfortunately this infrastructure and programs meant to preserve Adirondack waters continue to go underutilized,” Janeway wrote in a press release. “In New York, there is no law requiring boaters to use inspection stations, and each year Adirondack waters and communities pay the price.”

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