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July 11, 2013

Watchdog group worries about invasive plants

By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — COOPERSTOWN — Every family wants to protect its heirlooms.

But the environmental watchdogs keeping an eye on one of Otsego County’s most significant jewels, Otsego Lake, say the water body is not being adequately protected from the threat of invasive species.

The biggest threat to the lake, they say, are aquatic invasive species that usually enter waterways via boats that carry them there after picking them up in rivers and lakes that already have them.

A new report by Win McIntyre, the lead advisor to the Otsego Lake Watershed Advisory Committee, states that the threat of invasive species entering the lake has “significantly increased” because boats aren’t being inspected at several launch sites overseen by motels.

In addition, not all boats being launched from Springfield Landing are inspected, and there are regular after-hours launches at the two public launch sites in Cooperstown, creating even more opportunities for invasive species to slip into the lake..

McIntyre said the county Board of Representatives could help protect not only Otsego Lake but also Canadarago and Goodyear lakes by passing a county law that imposes sanctions on boat operators whose craft have an invasive species attached to it when it is launched.

Similar laws, he noted, already exist in Warren and Essex Counties. Warren County is home to Lake George, while part of Essex County runs along the western shore of Lake Champlain.

The goal of stepping up the protection of the local lakes is also actively supported by Willard Harman, the director of the Biological Field Station operated in Cooperstown by the State University College at Oneonta, and Paul Lord, a professor of aquatic biology at SUCO, officials said.

“The cost of dealing with these aquatic invasive species is tremendous,” said Matt Albright, Harman’s assistant at the field station. Not addressing the threat, Albright said, ends up being far more expensive than taking action because the problem can lead to reductions in the value of lakefront real estate and make the lakes less attractive to tourists.

The 2011 local law passed in Warren County to counter aquatic invasive species calls for minimum fines of $500 per violation, with a maximum fine of $5,000. 

McIntyre said enacting such a law is the first goal. But he said the lake advocates would also like to see more widespread boat inspection programs. How they might be funded, he acknowledged, has not been worked out. However, he pointed out, the Lake George Park Commission has a very vigorous inspection program, one that is funded through registration fees paid by boat owners.

A report issued by the Biological Field Station, compiled by Harman and Holly Waterfield, found that 23 aquatic species have been introduced into Otsego Lake since the early 20th Century. “Likewise we know of 53 native species that have been decimated or disappeared during that time period,” their report states.

The goal of combating such invasive species as water chestnuts, zebra mussels and Eurasian Milfoil has also been a priority for organizations such as the Otsego Lake Association, the Otsego County Conservation Association and the Otsego Water Quality Coordinating Committee.

These groups are especially anxious to keep the lake from being invaded by hydrilla, a particularly pesky plant that exists in the Erie Canal and Cayuga Lake.

Lord has consulted with the Catskill Regional Invasive Species Program, which trains people to inspect watercraft and pass out tips to boaters on how to keep their boats and trailers from transporting the organisms.

Experts have calculated that, left unchecked, invasive species could cost the Lake George economy up to $50 million a year, while the decline in real estate values could amount to the hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Having a program, even one that is less than perfect, is a whole lot better than not having a program,” said Albright. “This is a huge problem and if we don’t take care of it, we’re really going to suffer the consequences.”