May 15, 2014 will see the beginning of a new mandatory boat inspection and decontamination program on Lake George designed to significantly reduce the risk of new aquatic invasive species (AIS) infestations. Each year, around 15,000 motorboats use Lake George, about 10,000 resident boats and around 5,000 transitory boats are trailered in from areas near and far.
Lake George is one of the most famous lakes in the eastern U.S., known internationally for its high water quality, clarity, and scenic beauty. This new mandatory boat control program will generate a lot of interest and help to raise the profile of bold, serious efforts to prevent the spread of AIS.
Lake George has been infested with AIS since the mid-1980s when Eurasian watermilfoil (myriophyllum spicatum) and curly leaf pondweed (Potamogeton crispus) were first found. In 1999, zebra mussels (Dreisenna polymorpha) were found. In 2010, Asian clams (Corbicula fluminea) were found and in 2012 and spiny water flea (Bythotrephes longimanus) was also discovered. With the exception of spiny water flea, all AIS in Lake George are under active management, though none have been eradicated. Total AIS management cost topped $1.2 million in 2012 alone.
The new Lake George program is modeled after a mandatory boat control program on Lake Tahoe. Started in 2009, this highly successful program shows that an effective interdiction and prevention program can be administered for a large, popular and complicated lake. No new AIS infestations have been found since the start of this program.
The new Lake George program contrasts dramatically with the limited efforts by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Cuomo Administration in the rest of the Adirondack Park and New York. AIS control is woefully underfunded and the state has refused to fully equip law enforcement agencies, local governments, lake associations, and private organizations with the necessary tools to fully protect their lakes, ponds and rivers.
This is shortsighted. Upstate New York is oft cited as an economically depressed area. Yet Upstate is an area rich in incredible lakes, ponds and rivers. The water quality of Upstate is vital to the local economies and supports a number of businesses, resorts, vacation homes, and high property values. AIS can rapidly change the ecology of a lake, wetland, stream or river as well as significantly impair and diminish recreational enjoyment. The DEC and Cuomo Administration need to make a much greater investment in combatting AIS in order to protect the Upstate economy and environment as well as its quality of life.
The new Lake George program was created primarily to prevent new infestations of highly disruptive AIS such as Quagga mussels (Dreissena bugensis) and water hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata), which have infested the Great Lakes and Finger Lakes. If these species get introduced to lakes and ponds in the Adirondack Park they could forever degrade major lakes and ponds.
A major effort is underway to control and eradicate hydrilla in Cayuga Lake. Removal efforts have focused on wetlands and stream channels at the south end of the lake, but a second major infestation was found last summer at another location. The other potential game changer is the Quagga mussel. Now resident in more than 40 lakes across New York, these mollusks reproduce rapidly and have caused enormous financial and economic damage in the Great Lakes. If the Quagga mussel gets established in the Adirondacks, its long-term impact could be far more serious than that of Asian clams or zebra mussels.
The main vector for spreading AIS throughout the Adirondacks and New York is the transport of motorboats for public recreation. Thousands of boats are brought to the Adirondack Park each year for public recreation for use on Adirondack Park lakes, ponds, and rivers. AIS attach to the engines, hulls, and trailers, among other places, and are carried from one lake to another. In juvenile stages, microscopic AIS animals, such as Asian clams, quagga mussels and spiny water flea, are transported in standing ballast waters, engine water and in live wells and bait buckets.
Lake George and Lake Champlain were the first lakes infested with Eurasian watermilfoil in the 1980s. Their high popularity and high boat traffic, combined with the weak control efforts, resulted in spreading Eurasian watermilfoil throughout the Adirondacks.
This same dynamic is at play once again, though the species have changed. The Asian clam infestation in Lake George raises the likelihood that this invasive species will be transported from Lake George to other lakes and ponds throughout the Adirondacks. In Lake Tahoe, the Asian clam infestation has resulted in transforming once blue and sandy beaches into places littered with clams shells and often covered with thick wads of algae. We cannot let this happen in the Adirondacks.
A critical principle of AIS management is that prevention is a more successful long-term strategy than direct management. Once AIS are established in a water body, it’s very difficult to remove it. It’s far cheaper to focus efforts on interdiction and prevention than direct management. It’s also much better for the ecological health of a water body to prevent an AIS infestation, than to try and control or eradicate it once established, through highly intrusive means.
The new Lake George program is the first of its kind in New York. This program, like the successful Lake Tahoe program, can serve as model that could be widely replicated across the Adirondack Park and New York. The Lake George program should be embraced by the DEC and the Cuomo Administration.
Mandatory boat inspection and decontamination programs should replace voluntary public education programs that have been managed at dozens of boat launches around the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain. These programs are beneficial, but do not involve more intensive inspection protocols linked to decontamination facilities. It’s time to transition these public education programs, based largely on voluntary visual inspections of boats and education of boat owners, to a mandatory inspection and decontamination program. While most boat owners are supportive of AIS prevention, not all are. Futhermore, some of the most venal and destructive AIS are transferred as microscopic veligers or juveniles in the live wells, ballast and engine water. Only a systematic inspection and decontamination program can guard against these threats.
Two of the newest AIS to invade Lake George arrived despite active public education efforts in operation at major boat launches. One of the major boat launch sites, with a robust public education effort, at the Norowal Marina is now area infested by Asian clams that likely arrived in the standing water on a boat. It’s also important to note that other infested areas are around private boat launches without high boat traffic to warrant a public education effort, but clearly enough traffic to begin new infestations.
Mandatory boat control programs provide round-the-clock protections where launches are either controlled or closed. The days of 24/7 launching need to end. The days of dirty boating need to end. The costs are simply too high.
The new mandatory Lake George boat control program has strong support from local governments and the business community around the lake, all of whom depend upon a healthy Lake George. These stakeholders have consistently and ardently expressed their support for a comprehensive boat control program for Lake George.
The threat to the rest of the Adirondack Park is enormous. Unlike the rest of New York, most of the major lakes and ponds in the Adirondacks remain un-infested, but the numbers of infested lakes continues to grow. According to the Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program (APIPP), 94 lakes are infested and 11 different AIS have been documented in Adirondack water bodies and it is believed that 16 lakes have two or more. Prospects for eradication of AIS from these waters are minimal.
AIS that infest water bodies in the Adirondack Park include Eurasian watermilfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum), curly leaf pondweed (Potamogeton crispus), variable leaf milfoil (Myriophyllum heterophyllum), water chestnut (Trapa natans), zebra mussels (Dreisenna polymorpha), Asian clams (Corbicula fluminea), spiny water flea (Bythotrephes longimanus), brittle naiad (Najas minor), European frog-bit (Hydrocharis morsus-ranae L.), yellow floating heart (Nymphoides peltata), fanwort (Cabomba caroliniana) and variable-leaf milfoil (Myriophyllum heteropyllum). Eurasian watermilfoil is the most widely spread AIS, believed to have infested over 50 lakes in the Adirondack Park.
Control of Eurasian watermilfoil in Upper Saranac Lake has cost millions of dollars, yet is a great success story. Over $5 million has been spent in an effort to control various AIS in Lake George with mixed results. A large-scale volunteer hand-harvesting effort combined with terrific volunteer survey work to quickly identify and treat new infestations of Eurasian watermilfoil on the Fulton Chain of Lakes has been successful. Organizations around Lake Placid have aggressively worked to contain an infestation of variable-leaf milfoil there.
Outside of the few success stories, infestations once identified have generally grown worse. There are many tragedies like Lake Durant in the Town of Indian Lake. This is a beautiful Forest Preserve lake, but now widely infested with variable-leaf milfoil. Most of the motorboat traffic comes in through the DEC campground boat launch, which for years was unattended. There are other spots on Lake Durant with unofficial launches where a small boat and motor can be launched from the roadside. There is no lake association to raise private funds or seek grants to clean it. The infestation has spread through nearly the whole lake. It’s a shallow, dammed lake, so it’s fertile ground for aquatic plant growth. Many parts of Lake Durant are choked and it’s unlikely ever to get cleaned up.
To make sure what happened to Lake Durant doesn’t happen anywhere else, the DEC and Cuomo Administration need to support a package of programs to give law enforcement agencies, municipalities, and private organizations new tools to stop the spread of AIS. The state acted to stop the sale of invasives in 2012, but now need to bolster statewide efforts. Below are five proven and effective measures that have been successfully utilized in other states that should be adopted in New York.
1. NYS should pass legislation that criminalizes the transport of AIS and fully empowers state and local law enforcement at every level to enforce this law. Fines must be serious. Neither the DEC or Cuomo Administration has supported a “transport law.” Such laws are in effect in Vermont, Washington, and Minnesota, among others.
2. NYS must pass legislation that criminalizes the launching of an infested boat into a water body by a boat owner as well as by the boat launch operator. Such laws are standard parts of comprehensive statewide AIS programs.
3. NYS must help to build a comprehensive inspection and decontamination infrastructure across the state. A number of western states have set up such facilities at state highway rest areas. Willing partners exist across New York in the Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM). APIPP manages the Adirondack Park PRISM, one of eight statewide. This will involve building both statewide network of scores of decontamination stations and effectively policing public and private boat launches.
4. NYS must organize a registry or infested and non-infested waterways and continuously update this database. Many states currently do this. Minnesota maintains an excellent database.
5. Adequate, sustained funding is badly needed for AIS management. Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) funding at $4.6 million annually is inadequate. A dedicated funding source is needed. Successful AIS control programs, such as seen on Upper Saranac Lake or on Lake Tahoe, are based on continuing efforts that are properly funded. Successful management and prevention programs are funded and operated annually so that there are no gaps in service, when AIS can rebound or be introduced. New York should pass an annual surcharge on boat registrations for a dedicated fund for AIS control as part of the Invasive Species account in the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF). The states of Oregon, Minnesota, and Maine, among others, have successfully implemented AIS surcharges to boat registrations.
One way to boost funding for AIS control is to tax the vectors that spread AIS – motorboats. The NYS 2012 Recreational Boating Report states “Recreational boating in New York State is a $2 billion industry enjoyed by millions of residents and visitors alike. With nearly 460,000 registered powerboats and perhaps another 300,000 non-powered watercraft, New York ranks 7th in the nation for registered boats.” It should be noted that some states, like Ohio and Pennsylvania require registrations for canoes and kayaks that use state waters. A $25 surcharge added to boat registrations in New would raise $11.5 million dollars, which should be dedicated as an AIS management fund within the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF). The current EPF level of support for aquatic and terrestrial invasive species control is completely inadequate, with just $4.6 million dedicated annually (that’s $75,000 per county, less than was spent to control AIS on Lake Placid).
These measures would significantly improve New York’s ability to manage AIS and protect New York’s waters.
The DEC is currently taking public comments on draft new rules for its boat launches and fishing access sites. The draft rules have a number of weaknesses and they also are a poor substitute for comprehensive statewide action. The DEC simply refuses to boldly lead on AIS control, seemingly resigned to watch AIS infest every corner of the state.
The DEC’s proposed AIS control regulations for state boat launches and fishing access sites (Part 59, Section 59.4, Part 190, Section 190.24 “Aquatic Invasive Species Control at State Boat Launching and Fishing Access Sites”) have many problems. Most DEC boat launches are open and unsupervised 24 hours each day, seven days a week during the boating season. The proposed new regulations are designed to criminalize the transport of AIS at state boat launches and fishing access sites. While this is a positive step, it is overshadowed by a void for enforcement. At a time when it’s a challenge for the state to staff and equip Forest Rangers, the expected coverage by DEC staff at state boat launches and fishing access sites is minimal.
The DEC’s proposed new regulations show the gap between bold actions set for Lake George and the meager programmatic response by the DEC. While New York has put together an AIS plan and organized the PRISMs statewide, these actions must be supported by stronger state laws and enhanced state funding to build a robust infrastructure to truly combat AIS.
New York faces a choice of action or continued loss. The many local efforts have helped to protect lakes, ponds and rivers in the face of dithering state agencies and state leaders. Much more needs to be done. The costs of inaction are much too high in the Adirondacks and across New York for rural economies, environmental health, and our quality of life. New York needs to become a national leader.