Eurasian watermilfoil, an invasive aquatic plant, is identifiable by feather-like green leaves with 12 or more thread-like segments, as seen here. /Photo by Mike Podmore

Citizen scientists find common goal against Eurasian watermilfoil

By Sue Tiffin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The Eurasian Watermilfoil Working Group is hoping that in spreading awareness of the invasive species, the spreading of the aquatic plant itself can be reduced.

The group, a sub-committee of the Drag and Spruce Lakes Property Owners’ Association (DSLPOA), has been working to control the local spread of Eurasian watermilfoil (EWM) with a project that has raised more than $40,000 toward a $50,000 goal so far through donations from property owners.

“It is an all-hands-on-deck kind of problem that will benefit from if we’re all helping out,” said Jim Miners, vice-president of the DSLPOA and member of the working group. “It’s an important project, it’s a project that needs everybody on board to support it. We’re happy to have people’s donations, we’re happy to have people’s involvement as volunteers, and all we can do is ask.”

Eurasian watermilfoil is an invasive, alien aquatic plant that is a perennial native in Europe, Asia and northern Africa but has spread to every continent except Antarctica, according to a presentation made by Miners to help educate lake associations, organizations and the general public about the plant. It was first identified in North America in the 19th century, and in Ontario in Lake Erie, in 1961. A look at EDDMapS, which tracks invasive species sightings, shows that the plant is prevalent throughout North America – and four known outbreaks on Drag Lake are included in that tally.

The first outbreak in Drag Lake was identified near Harris Beach, in 2015, by Mike Podmore, who passed away earlier this year.

“He was dedicated to this project, he was known on the lake as somebody who loved the lake and everything about the lake, and wanted to do what he could to protect the natural beauty and the natural elements of the lake,” said Miners.

Podmore brought the plant to the attention of lake steward Bert Bicknell, who began educating himself on Eurasian watermilfoil and finding out what others were doing to control it.

“Most lake associations who are dealing with this problem are treating this as a problem they are going to be dealing with forever,” said Miners. “It’s not a matter of getting rid of EWM, it’s a matter of controlling the spread and the growth of EWM. And most lake associations will tell you, if you can control it, you’ve been successful.”

The problems posed by the perennial, which grows under the water surface, are many: it spreads quickly and grows densely, causes odour as it decays, impedes growth of native plants and harms habitat, and can cause swimmers and boats to become entangled.

“There are stories of boats going into [Frenchman’s Bay in Pickering] and just stopping dead because the motor’s tangled, or the sailboat can’t get through,” said Miners. “It’s not a pretty story.”

Additionally, it can cause waterfront property value to drop as much as 15 per cent.

After understanding the importance of dealing with EWM outbreaks, the working group began researching and planning to control its spread, working with technical support from The Canadian Centre for Invasive Species, The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, U-Links (Trent U and Fleming College) and other lake associations.

“One of the things we’ve learned is that anyone working on this for more than a year is happy to share with anybody else, what they’ve discovered,” said Miners.

The DSLPOA applied to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry in 2017 to allow the property owners’ association to install biodegradable matting over the outbreak at Harris Beach to reduce photosynthesis and thus suppress further growth and propagation of the weed, a solution that is deemed most effective (cutting the plants risks further outbreaks with the creation of fragments). That project was approved in 2019 for a very specific time period – between July 16 and October 1, in 2020 and required extensive work in enlisting volunteers, fundraising and finding commercial dive teams who could help lay coconut fibre matting on top of the watermilfoil to see how it might be controlled from spreading further out. With that done – 13 coconut fibre mats were laid over one outbreak – the group plans to monitor if the project was successful – in part with an underwater camera that can give the group a close-up look at how the cover is working. If it proves to be effective, it’s one the group hopes to use again on the other outbreaks of the weed that have been identified in Drag Lake.

“We’re turning everybody on the lake who’s interested into a citizen scientist. Get out there in your kayak, get out there in your canoe, or your paddleboard or whatever, go along the shoreline, here’s what you’re looking for. The pictures are pretty clear, it’s going to look like this, and if you find it, don’t break it, whatever you do. Let us know. Citizen science is a good term, we’re also seeing it as a great community builder around the two lakes. There’s a common goal now for people to get behind.”

That common goal has led to 252 concerned property owners helping to contribute to the fund – some more than once – to keep EWM under control, with Miners saying that 250 property owners still have yet to contribute.

“We’re trying to be creative in terms of getting them to accept that this is a problem that everyone needs to be concerned about,” he said. “This sounds a bit trite. But the weed is working 24/7. It’s planning what it’s going to do this summer. So if we’re not planning what we’re going to do this summer, we don’t stand a chance.”

Besides protecting Drag Lake, Miners said it’s important to help stop the weed from spreading into Spruce Lake, and to other lakes through boats that are used on different waterways. He believes that it’s not necessarily a problem only affecting Drag Lake.

“If we continue to find other outbreaks, and we’re to report all of them, then all of a sudden we look like the worst lake in Haliburton County on [the EDDMapS tracker],” he said. “It’s a fine line. Ask me if I believe there’s EWM in every lake in Haliburton County and I will say, I think it’s more likely that it’s in every lake than that it’s not in every lake. People don’t know what they’re looking for. We didn’t know what we were looking for, here.”

Miners has added grant writing to his to-do list, looking for funding support to help projects like what the DSLPOA has initiated. While the efforts in the past year have been successful, he wants to ensure the project is sustainable, without property owners fundraising each year if more outbreaks occur.

“It’s life’s worth, job security,” he said of the weed. “If you’re in the business of controlling EWM, you’ve got work for a lifetime. It’s not a short-term project by any means, and everybody who gets into it, every lake association who gets into it finds that out very quickly.”

On March 23, Miners and Rick Wesselman are presenting to Dysart council regarding how the EWM group and the municipality might work together on the project. On March 28, the EWM group is hosting a Zoom meeting with representatives of Dysart council, the Coalition of Haliburton Property Owners’ Associations and Dysart lake associations to further discuss the project.

For more information about the local Eurasian watermilfoil project or the Drag and Spruce Lakes Property Owners’ Association, visit