From Asian clams to Eurasian watermilfoil, from zebra mussels to water chestnut, invaders threaten Adirondack waterways. Aquatic invasives can foul boats, clog water systems, and choke once-clear waters, spoiling both the natural character and recreational opportunities of the Park’s lakes.
If we are to defend the wild waters that are at the heart of the Park’s character, we can’t be passive in defense of our lakes, rivers, and streams. Volunteer efforts and the honor system for keeping boats from spreading contamination have helped slow invasive species, but now it’s time to raise the level of alert and take the offensive.
State and local authorities need to move immediately toward a system of mandatory prevention procedures that carry the force of law. A committee of the Lake George Park Commission has proposed mandatory boat inspections to keep boaters from carrying pernicious species into the lake from other water bodies. It’s the sort of aggressive action we will need across the Park. The sooner a pilot program begins in Lake George, the sooner we will be able to work out the practical details and then establish a new line of defense throughout the Adirondacks.
In spite of what some critics are saying, the Lake George proposal is neither unprecedented nor impractical. It grows from a collaboration with authorities working to save Lake Tahoe, another beautiful and endangered mountain lake. As described in the story on Page 9 of this issue, the plan would require boaters launching their craft in Lake George to use special boat-decontamination sites. Once cleaned, a boat would receive a seal. Monitors at boat launches would then know that it could safely enter the lake without fear of contaminating its waters.
This is an important step up from the current efforts that rely heavily on education and the good faith of boaters. Lake stewards posted at busy launch sites explain to boaters how invasive species can hide on boats and trailers. They also visually check boats about to be launched. But inspectors generally lack the enforcement power to block contaminated boats from launching. And in a region dotted with recreational waterways, unprincipled boaters turned back from one launch would have little trouble finding an unguarded launch to use.
Education and stewardship have no doubt slowed the spread of invasives, but the case for mandatory inspections can be found in lakes across the Adirondacks. In Lake George alone, researchers have found Asian clams, zebra mussels, Eurasian watermilfoil, and curly-leaf pondweed. Around the Park, shore-owner associations are battling to eradicate Eurasian watermilfoil, which has been found in forty-five lakes, including such popular destinations as Lake Luzerne, Brant Lake, the Fulton Chain, Upper Saranac Lake, and Lake Placid.
Common sense and enlightened self-interest should lead anyone who uses or cares about Adirondack waters to cooperate in a fight against invasives. Yet in the face of this present and spreading danger, some argue against stronger defenses, contending they are too intrusive or expensive. Local authorities have to recognize how dependent our communities are on dollars from water-based recreation. They have a responsibility to safeguard the financial future of their constituents, which means they must keep their waters clear of invasives.
And in the fight against invasives, prevention is far cheaper than removal. Lake George alone has spent millions of dollars on eradication. According to the Lake George Association, fighting Asian clams cost $600,000 last year and will probably cost another $400,000 this year.
In this light, the investment in the boat-washing sites and inspectors required by a mandatory program are a reasonable investment. Six permanent wash stations located around the lake could cost $1.5 million.
To succeed, mandatory programs must include healthy amounts of the education and goodwill that already power voluntary programs. Boaters determined to get around an inspection system will likely be able to do so. But if they agree with the program’s goals and they can have their boats washed and inspected affordably and easily, they will probably abide by regulations. Scofflaw problems will arise if:
• The program is not well-publicized and boaters show up at launches unaware that they needed to first visit a wash facility;
• Wash facilities are not conveniently located;
• The cost to the individual boater are so high that it creates an incentive to cheat.
Similarly the best-designed plan could run afoul of local governments if leaders believe it costs more than their community can afford. This is clearly a case where benefits of the defense effort extend far beyond the locality where a lake is at risk. One infected lake will lead to others. Visitors who find their favorite waterways clogged with milfoil are likely to seek out other regions and other states. The income they have provided New Yorkers would then go out of state.
Where the benefits are widespread, the costs should be widely shared. There’s no questioning that New York State is in serious financial difficulties. But the state is in the best position to provide the financial aid needed for bold steps to save Adirondack waters. Albany should be prepared to follow the proposed Lake George plan with the funding and other resources needed to turn the pilot program into a fully operational Park-wide system as soon as possible.
Tom Woodman, Publisher