Vermont’s lakes and ponds are facing a serious and growing threat from the spread of aquatic invasive species. While Vermont can still boast some of the cleanest and most pristine surface waters in the country, our public waters are under increasing pressure from the spread of aquatic invasive species. In the summer of 2022, three lakes that formerly had no invasives, reported new infestations of Eurasian watermilfoil.
This is unfortunate news because these kinds of infestations are preventable. With a small amount of funding from the state’s Aquatic Nuisance Control Grant-in-Aid program and a great deal of fundraising, volunteer lake associations around the state run greeter programs to inspect and clean boats entering and leaving lakes and to educate boaters and all lake users about the problem of invasive species. These funds are also used to control and reduce already existing infestations, helping to prevent transport to other lakes. Yet for 2023, the state is cutting these funds by over 30%.
Greeter and control programs are vital to invasive species spread prevention. As the damage invasives can cause to an ecosystem has become more evident, more lake associations have developed greeter programs, looking to the state Aquatic Nuisance Control Grant-in- Aid program for basic funding. Although the number of programs has grown, the Aquatic Nuisance Control funds have been level funded for nearly 20 years at $450,000. Now, when there is even greater pressure on our lakes from increased usage, when we should be creating more greeter programs, and when those already operating should increase their hours, the state is cutting the funds that support these programs to a mere $305,000.
The amount of this cut may seem small in a multi-billion-dollar budget but $145,000 can be the difference between clean water or an invasive infestation. While these funds were never truly adequate and volunteer lake associations have always been in the position of having to raise more funds, they still helped. They were often the seed that got a program off the ground. Nevertheless, of the 196 Vermont lakes with public boat or fishing accesses, only approximately 32 have active greeter programs and of these only 4 have hot water boat wash stations to clean boats (the best way to ensure no invasives are transported). The reason for these low numbers is simple – inadequate funding.
The spread of aquatic Invasive species is a human caused problem, spread by moving boats and other gear from infested water bodies to non-infested water bodies. The best and most cost-effective defense against spread is prevention. Once a waterbody is infested, reducing and controlling the infestation to maintain the health of the lake and to avoid degraded water quality is extremely expensive, far more expensive than prevention. For example, Diver-Assisted Suction Harvesting to clear 1 acre of Eurasian watermilfoil can cost as much as $10,000 while running a greeter program for an entire summer season might cost $20,000 to $30,000.
Control and reduction of aquatic invasives is also part of prevention. The more that an infestation can be reduced, the less likely boats leaving that waterbody will carry the invasive to other waterbodies. Yet the indications are that this funding cut will all but eliminate funds for control programs.
This is not a trivial matter, aquatic invasive species, such as Eurasian watermilfoil, if left unchecked, can spread to form monocultures that will squeeze out the native plant species that are necessary to support native fish and other wildlife that depend on a healthy lake ecosystem. Other types of invasives, such as zebra mussels can clog water intakes, make beaches unusable, and damage boat engines. Invasive species can cause poor water quality and can adversely affect human health.
There is an economic cost, too. A dense infestation can lead to falling waterfront property values, meaning lower tax revenues for towns, as well as decreases in tourism, an important contributor to Vermont’s economy.
We are fortunate that many of our most beautiful and pristine lakes, such as Willioughby, Caspian, Maidstone, Seymour, Raponda still have no known invasives. However, without adequate funding, these and the other lakes and ponds still not infested are in real danger of infestation.
Our volunteer lake associations bear the burden of the work of prevention and control of aquatic invasive species in the state’s public waters. Each year our volunteers raise hundreds of thousands of dollars and contribute thousands of hours of unpaid labor to implement a variety of programs to monitor, collect data, prevent the spread of invasives, protect our lakes and ponds from pollutants, and educate the public about best practices to protect our public waters. We do this willingly, but we cannot do it without a reasonable amount of funding and support from the state. This funding cut suggests that the state is abdicating its responsibility to protect our public waters from aquatic invasive species.
Pat Suozzi, who lives in Hinesburg, is the President of the Federation of Vermont Lakes and Ponds and also a member and past president of the board of directors of the Lake Iroquois Association.