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By ROBERTA SCRUGGS, Staff Writer
Sunday, March 12, 2000
Copyright © 2000 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
Frank Pitcher stood on the shore of Messalonskee Lake last summer to see what he calls "the worst natural disaster Maine has ever faced."There was no fire, no flood, not even a toxic waste spill threatening the serene water in front of him. The agent of disaster is a plant, called variable watermilfoil. It's already been spotted in a handful of Maine waters, including Cushman Pond in Lovell, Thompson Lake in Oxford, Sebago Lake and some of its tributaries.
"It looks like a thick green net," said Pitcher, a retired attorney who lives on Pocasset Lake in Wayne. "It comes up to the surface and crawls around. It's thick enough for a mouse to run across it. You can't swim in it. You can't boat in it. You can't paddle a canoe in it."
And it's not alone. There are other aquatic threats hovering just outside the state's Maine's borders, including Eurasian watermilfoil, an even more aggressive relative of variable watermilfoil. The difference between the two types of milfoil is mostly one of range, said David Courtemanch, director of the Division of Environmental Assessment. The variable form grows mostly along shorelines, while the Eurasian milfoil can extend into waters up to 20 feet deep.
"It overwhelms native plants and displaces native fish and plants," Courtemanch told a legislative committee Monday. "It effectively shrinks the size of our lakes in doing this."
The good news is that Maine is believed to be the last state left in the lower 48 whose waters are not being choked by Eurasian watermilfoil. The bad news is that keeping it out — if it even can be kept out — will take a cooperative effort from everyone who uses Maine's 6,000 lakes and ponds. And first, they have to realize the danger exists.
"We've barely scratched the surface," said Scott Williams, executive director of the Maine Volunteer Lake Monitoring Program. "Very few people in Maine have any awareness of this problem."
The key to stopping the spread of milfoil and other invasive water plants is persuading individuals to inspect their boats, trailers and equipment after each use and and remove all plant fragments. That's a tall order. There are about 125,000 boats registered in Maine and many more brought here from other states. But as speaker after speaker pointed out at public hearing Monday in Augusta, the price of failure would be high.
"We can't let any of these plants cross our borders," Courtemanch said. "Once they're here, we're in an entirely different game — control and management. That hasn't worked elsewhere, and it won't work here. We cannot get rid of these plants. We cannot eradicate these plants."
Rep. Richard H. Thompson, D-Naples, has introduced a bill, LD 2581, to prohibit the importation of Eurasian watermilfoil and authorize a fine of up to $500 for violating that law. It also requires the state to post warnings at public boat launches. But Thompson and other supporters urged members of the Legislature's Natural Resources Committee to go even further and to move quickly.
"We need to do something about this issue this year," Thompson said. "This is not an issue that can wait."
Courtemanch and others urged the committee to make it illegal to transport any aquatic plants on watercraft and trailers, because identifying the harmful ones is so difficult. Legislators also will be considering whether to quarantine infested waters, how to enforce laws and the best way to educate the public about the dangers of invasive plants.
Trying to keep the harmful plants out of Maine is only the most immediate part of the problem. Another is how to respond if, or more likely when, they do arrive.
"The stuff is going to get here," Courtemanch said. "This is only a holding action."
Across New England and the nation, states are spending millions of dollars on efforts — from herbicides, to mowers, to weevils — to eradicate milfoil, but so far with very little if any success.
"Once it has taken root in a lake or pond, there is no known way to eradicate it," Thompson said. "You can only try to control it."
Like most invasive plants, milfoil spreads quickly, in part because it has no natural competition. It reproduces primarily through fragmentation, meaning a lake can be infested from a single fragment of milfoil. The most common means of transmission is people, who carry plant fragments from one lake to another on their boats, motors, trailers or even fishermen's nets.
"This is a plant that can spread incredibly quickly from a very small piece stuck on a propeller on a boat that comes from somewhere else," said Sen. Sharon Treat, D-Kennebec, co-sponsor of the bill. "It stunts fish growth. Lakes that are heavily infested lose certainly their economic value but also the natural resources value that we all care so much about."
Maine's lakes pump more than $2.8 billion into the state's economy each year and provide jobs for more than 50,000 people, said Ship Bright, executive director of the Maine Lakes Conservancy. But the number of tourists or the value of waterfront property can quickly drop if a lake is choked with milfoil.
"To see the lakes that have been infested with this weed and the measures people are taking to control this weed is stunning," Bright said.
At Cushman Pond in Lovell, residents have already spent from $15,000 to $20,000 battling variable watermilfoil since it was first spotted on the shoreline three years ago, said Joan Irish, president of the Kezar Lake Watershed Association. No motorboats are allowed on the 32-acre trout pond, but Irish said it's believed the plant was introduced on bait traps.
The town also may have to replace a deteriorating dam on the pond, at an estimated cost of more than $100,000, she said, to keep the plant from spreading through the watershed"We've tried to eradicate it with very limited success ... ," Irish said. "Please note this is one small pond in one small community."
Attacking milfoil with herbicides costs roughly $350 an acre, said Sen. Treat. Mowing the plants, which must be done over and over, can cost from $500 to $2,000 an acre. Both methods have their drawbacks. Cutting the plants may simply spread them more quickly, since many fragments may be set free to root elsewhere. Herbicides may have unintended side effects and are not allowed in Maine waters, according to the DEP.
Phillippe Boissonneault, representing the Portland Water District at the hearing, said the district has "concerns about the environmental and ecological impacts that Eurasian watermilfoil could have on Sebago Lake." Variable watermilfoil has been spreading along Sebago's coves and tributaries for about two decades, Courtemanch said.
The intakes for the water district are at depths beyond the range of either Eurasian or variable watermilfoil, Boissonneault said, but of more concern are how people might try to control the plants."If Eurasian watermilfoil does establish itself in Sebago Lake, Boissonneault said, "the eradication measures — including mechanical, chemical or biological — that may be employed by shoreline residents to clear their shore frontage of this pest could become problematic and impact water quality."
The battle against milfoil is only just beginning in Maine. How big and how expensive that battle becomes depends, legislators were told, on warning people now, not later.
For waterfront property owners like Pitcher, who have seen milfoil spreading across a once beautiful lake, the danger already is perfectly clear.
"The first milfoil I see in this lake, I'm selling the house and moving to salt water," Pitcher said. "Why come to a lake if it's choked with this stuff?
Linda Madsen, library assistant, contributed research to this story.