Stem the Tide

Keep aquatic invasive plants from spreading.

When the winter ice on lakes begins to thaw and beach sand appears along snow-covered shorelines, Scott Brown can anticipate a flood of calls from people with property on inland lakes and along the Great Lakes. Their common thread is a topic of dread: invasive aquatic plants and what to do about them.

Starry stonewort
Starry stonewort. Photography courtesy Scott Brown

“We get questions year-round, but the calls accelerate when spring starts to pop,” notes Brown, executive director for Michigan Lake and Stream Associations, a Stanton-based nonprofit that works with 250 lake associations and 500 members. Brown coordinates with state and federal agency efforts to stem the tide of nonindigenous aquatic plants that enter the state and foul its waters.

They can be colorful like water hyacinth, known for its pretty lavender flowers — a native of the Amazon Basin. It’s considered “one of the most troublesome aquatic weeds in the world,” according to the Midwest Invasive Species Network, a coalition of organizations working on the problem. More often Brown hears about Eurasian watermilfoil or curly-leaf pondweed.

Invasive aquatic plants are the bane of lakefront property owners. They crowd out native plant species, often forming dense mats that hinder boating, fishing and other recreation and can cause dissolved oxygen levels to drop, which affects water quality.

“It’s a huge problem. And there isn’t a single lake in Lower Michigan that does not host at least one aquatic invasive plant,” Brown declares. “Starry stonewort, an invasive algae, scares the hell out of everyone. It forms dense mats and has spread like wildfire.”

Eurasian watermilfoil
Eurasian watermilfoil. Photography courtesy Scott Brown

Starry stonewort is one of several emerging species government agencies are on the alert for, hoping to eliminate any Michigan infestations before they spread.

Prevention, Brown says, is the best approach. Boat-washing stations increasingly are being installed at public launches. And the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Department of Agriculture and Rural Development now employ an early-detection and rapid-response program.

The system was activated in September 2014 after the discovery of the yellow floating heart plant in a Wayne County pond on the former Henry Ford estate, now the University of Michigan’s Dearborn Environmental Study Area. The plant resembles the white water lily but with yellow flowers. It was the first report of it growing in Michigan. It is illegal to possess, transport or spread because it can completely re-engineer an aquatic ecosystem.

Clean Boats, Clean Waters

Boaters, anglers and paddlers can unwittingly move invasive aquatic plants from one lake to another. Bits of plants clinging to hulls, outboard motors, trailers and even mud caked on wader boots is all that is required to establish the plant population in new waters. A new website by MSU Extension’s Clean Boats Clean Waters program explains how to avoid spreading the plants from lake to lake. For more information:

Award-winning writer and BLUE Undercurrents columnist Howard Meyerson lives in Grand Rapids.

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