Concord, NH — February 2, 2004 — The war on an insidious underwater plant in New Hampshire just got a million-dollar boost. State officials and lake associations hope the money, earmarked for research, will do what chemicals, harvesting and containment cannot: eradicate an invasive and exotic weed that chokes off other plants, alters habitat and could cause waterfront property values to plummet.
U.S. Senator Judd Gregg announced yesterday that New Hampshire will receive $1.09 million in federal funds to battle milfoil, which has infested almost 60 of the state’s 900-plus lakes and ponds since its arrival 40 years ago. One million dollars will go to the state Department of Environmental Services for research on variable milfoil, the species most menacing in New Hampshire. The remaining $90,000 is set aside for expanding the New Hampshire Lakes Association’s Lake Host program, which saved nine lakes from infestation last year.
Variable milfoil research is particularly lacking because the species is only a problem in Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire, where it spreads to two or three new lakes a year.
That means that no one has examined what makes variable milfoil tick: What kind of soil helps it grow? What water temperature and pH level does it like? What is its biological makeup? Without the answers, officials have been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to keep the plant in check – instead of eradicating it. But they hope the money will do just that.
“No one has been interested in researching it because it’s only a problem here,” said Nancy Christie, president of the New Hampshire Lakes Association. “Eventually, we might be able to avoid the conditions it likes to grow in. We can look at new herbicides, new predators. That’s why this money is so important. This is huge, wonderful news.”
Variable milfoil grows up 20 feet tall – or an inch a day – without treatment. The problem is compounded by the fish, which eat the native plants, making room for more milfoil. Eventually, native plants are gone and fish die without food, leaving dirty water with milfoil so tall no one can swim or boat.
Those who live on lakes and ponds could see property values drop as much as 20 percent if milfoil isn’t treated, according to a 2001 University of New Hampshire study. But environmentalists are quick to point out that this is not just waterfront property-owner issue.
A recent study by the New Hampshire Lakes Association says those who boat, swim, fish or pay waterfront property taxes bring an estimated $1.8 billion a year to New Hampshire. If the water gets dirty, property values drop and tourists disappear, increasing taxes elsewhere in the state to make up for lost revenue. “This really affects anyone who wants to use the lakes,” Christie said. So far, the state has earmarked about half of the funds for various research projects:
· Determining the physical conditions milfoil likes (about $120,000)
· Harvesting and replacing milfoil with vigorous native species, including Chara, a macro-algae that you can see with your eyes. It occurs naturally in several New Hampshire water bodies already and might out-compete milfoil by using the sunlight before milfoil does ($200,000)
· Developing a handbook on milfoil control ideas ($30,000)
· Testing a new herbicide, called Triclopyr, which attacks milfoil at the root, instead of simply killing the plant’s leaves like other herbicides the state uses ($150,000).
“We want to look at everything,” said Jody Connor, state limnology director. “Other states have variable milfoil without a problem. We don’t know why.”
The rest of the federal money might go toward studying milfoil genetics to grow a smaller plant or a one that can out-compete the variable variety, while not hurting New Hampshire’s flora and fauna. Meanwhile, the Lakes Association wants to take its $90,000 to boost its Lake Host program. Last summer, volunteers stood on boat ramps inspecting boats for signs of the weed and handing out milfoil brochures. They prevented boats with milfoil residue from entering nine unaffected lakes, possibly saving them from infestation.
This summer, the money will go toward a matching $150,000 state grant that will expand the program from 38 to 55 volunteers. Connor said the state’s research will hopefully begin this summer and could last as long as three years. But even if there’s a delay, “this is definitely a good thing,” he said.