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Clearing invasive species from waterways, one handful at a time

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has designated this past week as Invasive Species Awareness Week. The goal is to encourage the public to help stop and reverse the spread of invasives. A group of volunteers from central New York has joined the battle.

On a July morning, nine volunteers put their canoes in the Seneca River. They’re paddling in the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, west of Syracuse. Battling a strong current and stronger wind, they head to a section of river called the swift-water channel.

Their objective: to remove as many invasive water chestnut plants as they can find. Their leader is Chris Lajeski, from the Audobon Center at Montezuma. Balancing in a kayak, he reaches into the water and pulls out a plant by its roots.

“This is just starting to grow, it’s a fairly small plant going to get a lot larger as the summer goes on,” said Lajeski. “It’ll be about a foot and a half or so in diameter by the end of the summer.”

Credit Kevin Montano / The New York Reporting Project at Utica College
The New York Reporting Project at Utica College
Volunteers Dave Robertson and Gretchen Schauss pull water chestnuts from the waters of the Montezuma Wildlife Refuge.

Water chestnut was introduced to North America in the late 1870s, and by the 1950s had spread to the Finger Lakes. The plant’s triangular leaves float on the surface, blocking the sun and making it difficult for native plants to thrive. It can quickly grow so thick it chokes off rivers, streams and lakes.

Upstream, two volunteers are trying to maneuver their canoe in a dense matt of the stuff, just off the main channel.

“Now you get to see how bad it can be,” said volunteer Gretchen Schauss.

“There are some places where you could use snow shoes instead of a canoe,” said another volunteer, Dave Robertson.

Plant by plant, they have been clearing this section of river.

“It might seem like a small thing, and I think it is, but you do this twice a week, all summer long everything adds up,” said Robertson.

It adds up to 1 to 3 tons of aquatic plants pulled a season, since the project started 7 years ago.

The volunteers are from a group called MARSH that’s working to restore the Montezuma wetlands, 50,000 acres of public and private land that provide a critical stopover for migrating waterfowl. For those birds, the invasives are like junk food with little nutritional value. Montezuma’s Kent Kowalski says the birds eat better now many invasives are gone.

“So now we have submerged aquatic vegetation that we like coming up in place of the water chesnut,” said Kowalski. “And that provides food for a lot of the waterfowl, a lot of the water birds in this area that migrate through.”

There are people perks too. Bird watchers Steve and Linda Benedict started pulling water chestnuts so they could get access to places the public can’t go. This was a good day on both fronts.

“We saw an adult and baby pileated woodpecker, and we saw a family of wood ducks, and we’re hearing marsh wrens, common yellow throat and swamp sparrows, so we just love being out here,” Linda Benedict said.

While this channel has been significantly cleared, a big infestation remains upstream.  That may require a mechanical harvester or even herbicides to root out. In the meantime, this group is ever vigilant as it aims to halt the invasion.

David Chanatry is with the New York Reporting Project at Utica College