Containing, waging war on milfoil

Published online: Feb 27, 2009 News DEIRDRE FLEMING
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Keeping milfoil from spreading through Maine's roughly 6,000 lakes and ponds takes, as Peter Lowell says, a Herculean effort.

Still, Lowell, the director of the Lakes Environmental Association in Bridgton, is excited about the 10th annual Maine Milfoil Summit on Friday because it represents a mighty effort to fight the invasive species.

The annual conference gathers together Mainers who are fighting the prolific European water plant, which, in most cases, cannot be eradicated once it has taken hold.

"The dark side of this whole problem is that the people within the infested areas are really putting an enormous amount of money into cleaning their lakes," Lowell said. "We've put $150,000 into the Songo River."

In the 10 years since the conference was founded after milfoil was discovered in Maine's lakes and ponds, the plant has spread. There are at least 29 lakes where the fight against the invasive plant has been raging.

Boat inspections help prevent milfoil from spreading to unaffected areas, and harvesting the plant's thick branches each year makes it harder for it to spread in lakes where it does exist.

"The problem is that you can't let up. If you stop, it just creeps back and spreads beyond where you started," Lowell said.

The good news, Lowell said, is that the work to prevent the spread of milfoil has probably had untold successes.

Statewide, there are about 50,000 boat inspections conducted annually on dozens of lakes, Lowell said. Most years, these boat inspections account for as many as half a dozen known interceptions of milfoil heading into clean lakes.

Lowell said that on the Songo River, the harvesting of milfoil has been so successful, the Lakes Environmental Association in Bridgton is talking about renting out its boat this summer to other lake groups fighting milfoil.

And on the 1,900-acre Little Sebago Lake in Gray and Windham, the lake association is seeking federal money after 10 years of fighting milfoil.

This year, with a coalition of partners, the Little Sebago Lake Association has applied through the Department of the Interior for $3.6 million in federal funds. The money, to be spent over three years, would fight milfoil on seven Maine lakes and ponds, including Little Sebago and Sebago lakes, said Carol Ann Doucette with the association.

The request for outside funding comes after a decade of raising thousands of dollars to pay for hours of work removing literally tons of milfoil.

"We discovered the invasive plant in 1999 ... in one year, it doubled in size. So we took matters into our own hands, as we do most of the time. We got a permit to remove it ourselves," Doucette said. "I think we have taken out 35 tons since 2006. It's not like we're not making progress."

Doucette said the association, which has close to 1,200 members, has an annual budget of $100,000 and spends as much as $60,000 to $70,000 removing milfoil.

During the past three years, Doucette said, the association has received about $9,000 from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, about $20,000 from the towns of Windham and Gray, and roughly $71,000 through private donations.

Given the national recession, she said, those funds may dry up soon.

Taking on milfoil in a lake or pond requires specially configured pontoon boats with equipment that can pull up the plants. The boats require hired operators as well as divers who find the plants underwater. The association has two boats, but must hire the crew to run them.

Doucette said if the federal funding doesn't come through, the association will likely struggle to raise the money that is needed.

"We have been running this marathon with milfoil on our lakes since then...," Doucette said. "We just want to get our arms around it to manage it. Every year, we go back and groom. That is where we want to be -- to control it."

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