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‘Our lake is in crisis’: 50 years of milfoil

Last modified: 8/22/2015 12:46:53 AM
It has been a problem for 50 years now.

If towns around Northwood Lake don’t kick in more money, the local watershed association is going to be bankrupt in two years, its president says, and the responsibility – as the problem grows – will just fall to someone else.

In the town that have been most responsive, Moultonboro, it has cost $200,000 a year to gain ground. After five years and $1 million, the local committee is hoping to soon transition into a management phase, still possibly a six-figure annual investment.

The president of a statewide lake association is arguing for a law to help prevent it from spreading to new water bodies in the state.

The culprit is variable milfoil, an invasive aquatic weed with no natural predators. And after first appearing in Lake Winnipesaukee in 1965, it’s been growing relentlessly in upward of 75 of New Hampshire’s lakes, with no end in sight.


Milfoil, which can stay alive out of the water as long as it remains moist, likely became established in the state after a fragment hitchhiked on a transient boat or trailer.

It grows quickly and if left untouched, even a single fragment could overtake an entire lake and hinder boating, fishing and swimming. John Halstead, a University of New Hampshire professor, said a study he participated in found that waterfront property values can take a 10 to 20 percent hit because of the weed.

In Moultonboro – a Winnipesaukee town with a handful of popular, public boat ramps and a large percentage of water frontage – it was the property value argument that helped get milfoil control into the town budget as a line item, said Karin Nelson, the chairwoman of the town’s milfoil committee.

She said she started fighting milfoil with private funding raised from her fellow residents on Lees Pond, but after several years of limited success, she went to the town for help – and began an effort to get towns all across the lake to address what was a lake-wide problem.

It was about 2010, she said, that she started a campaign to educate the people in town about milfoil, arguing that even spending $200,000 a year would be cheaper than watching property values on all the lakefront homes plummet.

“If the lake people’s property goes down in value, the people off the lake are going to end up paying more in taxes. They didn’t like that idea,” she said.

Moultonboro represents an unusual situation, Nelson said, estimating that its 40,000 summer residents dwindle to 3,500 in the winter. In other words, “We have a ton of out-of-town residents who pay our taxes.”

“They’re out of town in March when we have our town meetings. It’s a very unusual situation. But even though a lot of them aren’t voting, they are with us on this because they’re the ones that have the waterfront property, and they don’t want their water clogged by this stuff either.”

The town has used a system called DASH, diver-
assisted suction harvesting, in which a diver pulls the weeds and vacuums them through a hose into a boat above. It’s becoming more expensive, she said, and can cost more than $1,200 a day for a team to pull weeds for six hours.

But after the town’s investment, the widespread infestation has begun to look more like a patch here and a patch there, leading Nelson to hope she’ll soon move into a management phase that costs less than $100,000 a year. Still, she said, “even if you get it down to no milfoil at all, which is pretty impossible, you still need to spend a certain amount of money to look for it. It’ll sneak in.”

For the first time this year, in what organizers hope will become an annual tradition, seven of eight Winnipesaukee towns met together to discuss milfoil-fighting tactics.


In Northwood, it hasn’t been so easy to get backing from the town, said Kevin Ash, the president of the Northwood Lake Watershed Association. Ash said if something doesn’t change on that front, the association is going to go bankrupt.

“If things continue as they are, we’re going to go out of business. We can’t keep up with the problem. It’s either give us more money, or we go away and it’s your problem,” he said he told the town’s selectmen.

What started as a $15,000 a year problem in 2005 – easily paid for through membership dues – has ballooned to $42,000 a year, split about evenly between chemical treatments and divers.

Not only has the cost increased, but the percent match backed by the state has dipped, from 40 percent to 25 percent, he said.

To make up a fraction of the difference, Ash went to the town, which paid $6,000 this year for milfoil control. He was advised by selectmen to amend down his original request of $7,500 to increase its chances of passing, he said.

The other two towns on the lake – Epsom and Deerfield – also kicked in for the first time this year, at $3,000 and $6,000, after a five-year campaign to get the question on their ballots, he said. The money from Northwood doesn’t go specifically to the NLWA, Ash noted, and now it’s being split between multiple water bodies, causing further difficulties.

Next year, he said, he’s going to ask for $12,500 from Northwood, $8,000 from Deerfield and $5,000 for Epsom. In the past, the warrant articles have passed handily, but he’s worried the jump in price – however necessary it may be deemed – may put voters off. He hopes eventually it’ll be a part of the town’s budget.

“It’s hard to control milfoil when you don’t know how much money you’re going to have until election day in March. If we can’t do a certain level, we know we’re going to lose ground on the milfoil,” he said.

“We’ve been screaming this for the past three years, but I think it’s taking some time to actually sink in. Our lake is in crisis,” he said.

Lake hosts

In general, the people fighting milfoil in town-level committees and lake associations wish the state was doing more.

“This problem has kind of been shunted down to the super-local level and it’s a way bigger problem than that, that needs to be addressed at higher levels,” Ash said. “More resources have got to be put into it all around.”

Tom O’Brien, the president of the New Hampshire Lakes Association, said at first federal money contributed to the effort, but that stopped more than a decade ago. State support has increased in response, largely through a dedicated portion of boat registration fees, which are increasing again in 2016, he said.

But as the pool of money broadens, so does the number of affected lakes.

The NHLA runs a program called Lake Hosts, which uses some of that state funding, alongside hundreds of volunteers, to inspect boats coming and going from launch ramps to ensure they aren’t bringing any milfoil with them. About a third of the 750 volunteers in the state are paid, O’Brien said.

In 14 years, the program has conducted more than 600,000 courtesy boat inspections and more than 1,500 “saves,” when milfoil was found attached to a boat or trailer. Moultonboro alone once accounted for about half the annual saves, Nelson said, but now sees very few, if any at all.

So far this year, there have been 34 saves, O’Brien said, down from the average, in part because the Lake Hosts are finding most people at boat ramps already know the mantra: clean, drain and dry.

Aside from plants, invasive animals are an increasing threat, and they can be so small in early life stages that they’re undetectable to the human eye, causing the Lake Hosts to suggest five days’ dry time before bringing a boat between different lakes.

Even with an extensive volunteer effort, he said, there are 600 public access boat ramps in the state, 200 of them are considered high-use, and “we have Lake Hosts at 100 to 105 of these ramps.”

To protect more lakes from being invaded, he said the NHLA is working on a law that requires people to clean and drain their boats and trailers.

In cases when, for instance, a boater wants to use one lake on Saturday and another on Sunday – leaving too little time for the boat to fully dry – he said boaters under the proposed law could be required to use a manual car wash to ensure a thorough cleaning.

O’Brien likened the cause to when doctors realized in the 1800s that they could curb the spread of disease by washing their hands.

“We’re at that point where we need to take responsibility for washing or decontaminating our boats,” he said.

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325 or nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter 


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