Thursday, July 24, 2014

Exploring the Niagara Frontier: The War on Hydrilla

When it comes to invasive species, animals typically get the most publicity.

From creepy, crawling insects (like the emerald ash borer) to over-sized fish that can fly into unsuspecting jet skiers (Asian carp), animals attract our attention and excite our senses and imaginations.

Invasive plants, on the other hand, tend to slip under the radar. Some can be kind of boring. Others — like purple loosestrife — can even be attractive. This shouldn’t sway anyone’s opinions or attentions at all. They are just as unwelcome as immigrants of the animal persuasion.

Dozens of invasive plants now call Eastern Niagara County home and all are having adverse and long-lasting effects on the environment. The latest and greatest (or, more accurately, “worst”) addition to our area is the hydrilla.

It is an aquatic plant from India and Sri Lanka that was actually introduced to the US in the early 1950s as a sort of ornamental plant for aquariums. Of course, unwanted plants were dumped into waterways and that created a monster.

The plant has since spread throughout the United States. It is firmly-rooted (no pun intended) in the Southeast and along the Atlantic seaboard. In Florida alone it is found in 70% of watersheds, making it the most abundant aquatic plant in the Sunshine State.

As recently as 2010, hydrilla was considered not to be present in Upstate New York. Then, in 2011, it was discovered in Cayuga Lake Inlet, which led to warranted fears that it would spread throughout the Finger Lakes.

In 2012, the unthinkable happened: The plant was discovered in the Erie Canal in North Tonawanda. This puts Niagara County at ground zero, because the plant can now spread throughout the Great lakes and New York due to the Erie Canal’s access to the Niagara River and the entirety of the state — not only is it a statewide waterway unto itself, but its water is also used to fill small streams throughout upstate for irrigation purposes.

Why is the hydrilla dangerous?

Hydrilla is like the Blob — an unstoppable beast that keeps getting bigger and bigger. One stem can reach 25 feet in length and the plants collect in big mats which eliminate the sun from reaching native plants below, forever altering habitats if left unchecked. This, in turn, changes the wildlife from the most microscopic level to the top of the food chain.

On top of that, the mats become so thick that they take away waterfowl habitat and spawning sites for pike, bass and other fish.

It is a hardy plant that can grow in water that’s dirty or clean and cold or hot (it winters-over well, making our region so susceptible to the invasion). Worse yet, it needs just 1% sunlight to grow, meaning it can grow almost anywhere and begin growing early in the spring before most other plants do.

It spreads primarily through regrowth of stem fragments, so as boats pass through the mats and chop the vegetation with their props the end up helping hydrilla to dominate the environment.

If the environmental issues aren’t damning enough, consider the effect it can have on property owners.

Once wide-open waters that were suited for boating and swimming can be completely choked out and made unusable by the mats, taking away enjoyment and value of the waterfront property.

What is being done to stop it?

The best way to stop the spread of hydrilla is prevention. It is imperative that all boats and props be cleaned of any plant material when leaving a body of water.

In June, the DEC adopted regulations making it illegal for boats carrying visible plant and animal matter to be launched from or leave DEC facilities (such as the numerous DEC boat launches in the Adirondacks).

There’s a very good chance this will be extended to ALL waters in New York (meaning every launch site in eastern Niagara County) as the Assembly and Senate passed a bill that would do just that. It is currently awaiting the governor’s signature. Do not be surprised if he signs the bill in September after the close of this year’s summer tourism season (so as not to confuse boaters mid-season).

If prevention doesn’t work, sometimes chemicals do. And that’s just what the Army Corps of Engineers tried this week when they applied aquatic herbicide to a stretch of the Erie Canal and Tonawanda Creek extending from Pendleton to the Niagara River.

That compound – endothall (Aquathol K) – is nasty and will help kill some of the hydrilla (and unfortunately other plants). It comes with risks, too – swimming in that section wasn’t allowed Wednesday, livestock cannot drink from the effected waters for 14 days and no water from that section should be used for irrigation for a week.

Will it work? Who knows...let’s pray that it does.

If it doesn’t, within a few years we will see Tonawanda Creek get choked and it won’t take long before hydrilla is accidentally spread to other local waterways. One day, Olcott Harbor or Golden Hill Creek might be overcome by the plant.

So, please, do your part in the war on hydrilla. Clean off your props and hulls --- don’t take any plants or plant parts with you when you leave the docks. If you do, chances are good it could take root on your next weekend jaunt, ruining that water with a dangerous domino effect.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he has declared war on hydrilla. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 24 July 2014 East Niagara Post

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