NORTH HERO, Vt. (AP) – It was a gorgeous sunny day to be out on a boat on Lake Champlain’s Pelots Bay, with a fresh, cooling breeze from the west. But no one on the craft was smiling.

“We’re angry,” said Larry Pratt as he steered to shore in his lakeside association’s new milfoil harvester, a pontoon boat fitted with a long saw-like blade fixed to a boat hoist.

“If you’re a boater, you’re really mad,” added Don Weaver, another crew member.

The two men are angry about Eurasian watermilfoil, a long, feathery plant that grows up from the bottom of lakes and ponds to form a dense, slimy mat on the water’s surface.

And like many, many lakeside homeowners in Vermont and elsewhere, they’re taking the fight against the non-native plant into their own hands.

“I really don’t see it going away any time soon,” said Kevin Johnson, a milfoil activist who lives on Joe’s Pond in Danville. “It seems like every year one or two more lakes are infested.”

Eurasian watermilfoil infests lakes and ponds across the northern United States and Canada. It was first seen in Vermont around 1962, and has spread rapidly in recent years to almost 60 of the state’s 200 largest lakes and ponds.

The battle to keep it from choking out other life, fouling boat propellers and wrapping around swimmers’ feet – and to prevent it from spreading to milfoil-free lakes and ponds – takes many forms.

Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation trains volunteers to watch for early signs of milfoil and other invasive species. And it trains them to teach others about keeping milfoil from spreading – especially by making sure there are no fragments of the plant on boats or boat trailers that move from one lake to another.

The state helps towns and lake associations set up washing stations at boat launches to keep the plant out of their water.

And it provides grants to – and requires permits from – groups like the one in Pelots Bay that have organized to fight the invasive plant through harvesting, hand-pulling, herbicides, weevils, the installation of bottom barriers, and other means.

The Pelots Bay Restoration Association Inc. chose the harvesting route. Last year, the group borrowed plans for a homemade harvester from Dr. Frank Russell, a 75-year-old retired surgeon who lives on Leonard Bay in Bridport, also on Lake Champlain.

Like his neighbors to the north, Russell is furious about milfoil.

“This bay here, which a few years ago was nice and clean and clear at this time of year, is now covered with a growth of milfoil, with a layer of yellow algae, and it looks like the Great Sargasso Sea,” Russell said last week. “(It has) great areas of dead water that can’t get stirred up.”

Russell designed a dragline harvester that non-profit lakeshore associations can build – with help from donated labor and parts – for about $10,000 and use to pull up or break off milfoil to deposit it on shore. It’s not a permanent solution, but no solution is permanent, according to the state. The harvester just enables people to use the lake.

“It’s like mowing the lawn,” said Jeanine Pratt, Larry Pratt’s wife.

Russell uses the boat to clear paths from his waterfront out to the deeper water, where the milfoil doesn’t grow.

The Pelots Bay association built its harvester over the winter and officially launched it last Sunday. Monday, its crew members – who proudly claim an average age of 70 – purred quietly around and around in the bay in their white converted pontoon boat, dragging up the weed and pulling into shore to drop off their heavy loads.

Standing on the pebbly shore was Jeanine Pratt, who used a penknife to saw the tendrils off the harvester blade so they would fall onto the ground. After the boat had pulled out for another load, she heaved the weed with a pitchfork onto a growing pile on the seawall.

Farmers will use it for organic compost, she said.

Like the others, Jeanine Pratt is less than pleased to be spending her summer clearing water that used to need no clearing. For a few years, the couple tried raising the milfoil-eating weevils. That didn’t work.

“We have native weevils and worms already,” she noted.

And it was a lot of work. They had to hatch the weevils in a tank, examine them to make sure they were at the proper stage, and then take them out to the water and tie together the piece of milfoil that the weevil was on to a piece waving in the water.

“Believe me, we have been at this for a long time,” she said.

The people whose lakes and ponds don’t have milfoil are working hard too – to keep the milfoil out. Some have staff at their boat launches to inspect incoming craft and talk to boaters about milfoil.

A state grant helps pay for those efforts at Caspian Lake in Greensboro, which so far is milfoil-free. In three years, the program has only seen one boat come in with milfoil – and that was from Connecticut, said John Stone, who until recently was the head of the anti-milfoil effort at Caspian.

“Many boats coming here from the local area are very familiar with the program, and come with a clean boat,” Stone said.

Kevin Johnson, who leads anti-milfoil efforts at Joe’s Pond, wants the state to make boat washes mandatory at lakes and ponds that do have the weed, so boaters can clean their craft coming out.

“Maybe even for a while they should have somebody inspect it to make sure their boats are clear when they leave the body of water that’s infested, rather than all these lakes that don’t have milfoil spending money and time patrolling for it,” he said.

Any way you do it right now, fighting milfoil is a big job, and it looks as though it will stay that way for a while; the Department of Environmental Conservation says there’s no way to eradicate it once it’s introduced, so the effort will go to controlling it.

Using weevils hasn’t turned out to be as effective as hoped.

“It does still show some promise, and in combination with other efforts probably has a benefit…but we’ve never really figured out how many weevils or what concentration of weevils need to be released into a site to really reverse the trends of the milfoil growth in that lake or site,” said Mike Hauser, an aquatic nuisance species specialist at the department.

More research is needed on herbicides as well – it’s not clear what concentration is right to stop the milfoil but leave the water safe for drinking and swimming. So far this summer, only one body of water – Beebe Pond in Hubbardton – has used herbicides against milfoil.

And then there’s hand-pulling – something Johnson has done a lot of at Lake Eligo in Craftsbury and Greensboro.

“I’ve seen first-hand how tedious and time-consuming and labor-intensive the effort is,” he said.

For the folks on Pelots Bay, the answer is using a crew of volunteers to motor from one clump of milfoil to another and tow the weed back to shore.

“It’s the answer for us because we don’t plan on doing a huge area,” said Jeanine Pratt.

“I think the biggest key is to just make people aware,” Johnson said. “It only takes a quarter-inch of the plant to reattach itself somewhere.”

AP-ES-07-19-03 1147EDT

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