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Milfoil Summit: The Struggle Continues With Glimmers of Hope

March 18, 2008 - LEWISTON -- The Lakes Environmental Association and its executive director, Peter Lowell, have organized and hosted nine State Milfoil Summits now. The ninth, held last Friday, may be remembered as a turning point.

The subtext of the previous eight summits has been: milfoil is coming, the invasive plants are here, and they're almost impossible to get rid off completely; don't panic, but prepare for a long siege.

While the spirit was willing, it was the Maine lakes version of "all ye who enter here, despair!"

Over time, this message has been borne out by experience, too. To this point, if the lake or other water body contracts a case of milfoil, you can knock it back, what can you knock it out? Not likely, though you can knock yourself out trying. ( Anyway, trying is produced way better results than just giving up!)

A lack of research on New England lakes, the Maine DEP's considered refusal to seriously consider "the nuclear option" (chemical eradication, complete with possible environmental backlashes), and difficult local experiences, have combined to give the summits a less than optimistic tone, however.

The message at the ninth annual summit in Lewiston hinted, really for the first time, that there may be some powerful right crosses and left hooks awaiting milfoil in Maine. Some of these body blows have come in the form of promising eradication techniques; others are more certain knowledge of how and why milfoil infest northern lakes more powerfully and opportunistically than it does lakes in the Midwest and South.

While continuing Maine infestation threats have been addressed, mainly by prevention, education and close monitoring, the attempted eradication programs have been expensive in terms of either man hours, or money, or both. Many have seen partial, more or less temporary successes; there have been knockdowns, but not knockouts.

In this area, the Little Sebago Lake Association has raised suction harvesting to a fine art, but both Little and Big Sebago still have heavily infested coves. The LEA launched its own milfoil fighting platform and has made significant advances on the infestation on the Songo River, but a few areas remain above the Lock, and a lot remained below. The Save Sebago Cove Association, which started up only last year, is already placed barriers at the bottom of their threatened cove, and the volunteers had developed a pontoon milfoil attack vessel -- but the infestation facing them is entrenched and daunting. Barriers have done a fantastic job of knocking back a Casco River infestation -- but, like the others, the milfoil in Lily Brook is not yet gone completely.

Other successes have been registered around the state, as here, mainly through the diligence and stubborn will power of the milfoilers. 29 infested water bodies were listed by the Maine DEP in 2006; in 2007, that number fell to 28. (Great East Lake was removed from the list.) But each year, over 150 invasive plants have been found, entering or leaving Maine boat ramps, by the 400 boat inspectors.

There is a little bit more money forthcoming from the state. Less than full 100% participation in the milfoil sticker program should be remedied this year, as boat registration and milfoil stickers will be combined into one sticker.

Here is the best promise for the future forward progress: big money may be forthcoming for milfoil research. There may be federal money on the way for Maine studies and, even if those funds don't come through, Maine should benefit from the million-dollar grant program that funded six separate studies conducted over the last year or so in New Hampshire.

Amy Smagula, a speaker at the very first Maine Milfoil Summit, was back last week to pass on some good news about the New Hampshire studies. Much more is now known about milfoil in local conditions than was known just two years ago. Two half-million dollar grants showed: 1 -- that water chemistry seems to have little effect on a lakes susceptibility to milfoil, 2 -- that certain bottom soils and sediments, on the other hand, may be more conducive to invasive plant growth and others; milfoil tended to cluster where sediments had low iron levels, low total organic carbon's and in coarser grain sands, while concentrations of ammonium, nitrogen and phosphorus also offered links, 3 -- that lake size and infestation extent are correlative to extraction measures.

Even more hopeful were the intervention studies, which showed some promise with biological controls. For example, certain nematodes that simply love to dine on milfoil are being tested. Talk about a simpler solution than the present course of pulling fragile plants out by the roots -- the small, wormlike animals can be freeze-dried into a block, tossed into the lake and sent to work! This certainly sounds a lot easier than playing she-loves-me, she-loves-me-not with a few acres of slimy milfoil plants.

The main problem, Smagula said, is finding just the right nematode, one that literally "would rather die than eat anything else." There have been many examples of biological controls gone out of control. For example, kudzu was introduced to the southern United States seven years ago as an aid to erosion control; it has since taken over hundreds of thousands of acres. So, precautionary testing continues in the search for a little beastie that will gobble milfoil, yet still be a picky eater.

Another labor-intensive intervention, but one that was tested with moderate-sized infestations is plant replacement. Simply remove the old milfoil, carefully, and replant the underwater plot with a noninvasive, environmentally friendly replacement. If you're milfoil, there goes the neighborhood!

Herbicides also continue to be studied. New Hampshire's DEP has approved some use of chemicals in specific, controlled circumstances, and more have been tested.

Added to this research could be companion scientific inquiries in Maine, Scott Lowell of Little Sebago Lake Association said. There is a possibility of $3.5 million in funding over three years to get a grip on the problem, and find more and better possible solutions, he said. Federal money would be supplemented by $250,000 in private funding and $150,000 in funds from the state -- but the bulk would be federal money

Some study is definitely needed, because the current methods make the task of removing milfoil from Maine tantamount to circumnavigating the globe by dog paddling. For example, since 2001, the patient LSLA volunteers have been hand removing and suction harvesting and making progress in harvesting and suctioning and making progress in handpicking and suctioning some more. The group does 100 bottom areas annually. They've taken 2 tons of milfoil out of their lake. They raise over $100,000 a year to fund their efforts. While ahead on points, they have registered no ultimate knockout. Since it is impossible for volunteers to work harder, they hope an infusion of $3.5 million will tell them how to work smarter.

The Bridgton News, March 13, 2008


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