Monday, May 22, 2000

Milfoil growth concerns residents: Champlain homes note big changes

Published in the Addison Independent

BRIDPORT - Summer is coming, and owners of Lake Champlain waterfront property are preparing for another summer of weed-choked shoreline.

Twenty-eight owners of lakefront property from Benson to Ferrisburgh met in Middlebury last Thursday to discuss the problem of Eurasian water milfoil, a non-native shallow-water plant that lake-shore owners say prevents them from enjoying the water.

The problem, according to Bridport resident Frank Russell, began in the mid-1990s. In 1992 and 1993 there was no real evidence of a plant invasion of the shoreline, Russell said.

But after that, Russell said, "It was almost geometric growth." Last year Leonard's Bay, next to which Russell's property sits, was covered with the weed, as well as algae and some water chestnuts.

"In six years it has obliterated Leonard's Bay," Russell said.

The chairman of the as-yet-unnamed group, Judy Reed, criticized the state's reaction to the problem.

"They have no program in the works to get rid of the milfoil," Reed said, "but that's not the biggest problem in the lake."

Reed, who lives in Chittenden and has a camp in West Addison, is concerned about her property value: "We're being taxed for waterfront that's full of glop."

The group is meeting to discuss ways of dealing with the problem, and is exploring the various means of controlling milfoil. They are also working to get the word out to other lake-shore landowners to enlist their support in the effort.

The group has not formally set upon a strategy yet. Reed expects the group to work for about a year before anything really gets moving. But she is determined to lobby the towns and the state to help in the fight against the plant, which Vermont classifies as an "aquatic nuisance" in the same category as zebra mussels and water chestnuts.

A potential stumbling block for the group's efforts is state regulation, including permit restrictions and the bureaucratic process for approving methods of milfoil control.

The state has refused to issue a permit for an Ohio company to introduce Ohio-raised milfoil-eating weevils into Vermont, citing concerns over foreign genes and the method of transporting the weevils into Vermont, which could risk bringing foreign plants into Vermont waters.

Sallie Sheldon, a professor of biology at Middlebury College, has done extensive research on controlling milfoil with weevils. The weevils, she said, are species-specific. When the weevils have eaten so much milfoil that they can't support their population, they die off, Sheldon said. "They don't go after other plants."

Sheldon understands the state's concerns about genetic stock and "hitchhiking" plant invaders, "but there are ways around that," she said. "The answers are all there," Sheldon said.

The reason people - including state researchers - have had less success than they hoped, Sheldon said, is a lack of understanding of the biological principles involved. The distributions tend to be of too few weevils across too wide an area, Sheldon said. They have been tested in Lake Bomoseen.

She warns that inadequate and under-informed use of weevils can be harmful to future work.

"If they're not put out well, then people say they don't work," Sheldon said, and are therefore reluctant to use weevils again.

Vermont's Department of Environmental Conservation has an annual budget of $175,000 for controlling aquatic nuisances. According to Holly Crosson, an aquatic biologist with the DEC, much of that money is spent on controlling water chestnuts.

That plant is the high priority for state officials because they believe they can control its spread and prevent it from becoming a larger problem, like zebra mussels and milfoil, which are expensive to attack lake-wide.

"A control program on that massive a scale, no one could afford," Crosson said. "The state cannot afford to target both species."

And already they're letting one species get away unchecked due to lack of funds: "We're not doing anything to control zebra mussels," Crosson said.

Crosson said, though, that the state is helping a community group near South Hero place weevils into the lake.

She said the citizens' group is on the right track and encouraged them to ask their politicians to spend money on the milfoil problem.

"It has to come from the people. We (DEC) can't ask for more money, because we'll never get it," Crosson said.

Russell talked about raising money from the landowners along the lake-shore, but also wants some public money.

"Given the tax that we pay here for waterfront, I would think the state could be part of it," Russell said.

It's not cheap. Gerald Smith, aquatic biologist and president of Aquatic Control Technology Inc. of Sutton, Mass., said mechanical cutting machines cost at least $50,000, with annual operating expenses around $30,000. Or they can be hired for $150 to $160 per hour, with transport fees and minimum operating times raising the price per use to close to $5,000.

"This lake is a wonderful lake, and it's a shame that the state isn't taking more active care of it," Russell said. "Leahy wants to call it a Great Lake, but he should call it the Great Sargasso Sea, or the Everglades of the North."

The group, which is open to anyone interested in the health of the southern section of Lake Champlain, will next meet on June 9 at 7 p.m. in the Ilsley Library in Middlebury.