The day the pond stood still

Amanda Mainguy | Staff Photographer

An airborne fighter crash-lands into the 49-acre Big Pond at the Jamestown Audubon Center. The black, spiked escape pod jettisoned from above sinks into the murky depths to settle in the thick sludge blanketing the pond’s floor. Over time the pod begins to shoot out cord-like scaffolding reaching for the surface, the sun, where it forms a floating, leathery rosette. One-hundred new spiked pods grow from this forward operating base, which then disconnects, sails away with the wind, and drops its freshly grown capsules like a B-52 carpet bomber. Thousands more alien bases now blanket the water’s surface, an impenetrable laurel flotilla that usurps the native habitat and consumes local resources, effectively killing off the native species and assuming control of the newly vanquished territory.

This is not a description of some interplanetary battle out of a science-fiction novel. This is a local war being waged in a nearby body of water. The aggressive alien conqueror is the invasive water chestnut, Trapa natans, which harbors the potential to clog and constrain local lakes and ponds.

But there is hope.

“We need to pull the plants early, now, before they grow more rosettes and nutlets as the season goes on,” said Jeff Diers, research scientist at Fredonia and vice chairman of the Conewango Creek Watershed Association, outlining the need for quick action during this time of the year. “The more plants later on, the greater chance they’ll have to spread.”

Not to be confused with the popular stir-fry dish vegetable, T. natans poses a serious threat to the health of slow-moving waters and their native inhabitants. In one season alone, the plant can increase from covering one acre to 100, where it outcompetes other vegetation for sunlight and nutrients, barricades the once-navigable water with a net of impassable stems and leaves, and shuts down the lake’s recreational potential.

At the frontlines of the battle against the water chestnut invaders are volunteer soldiers like Joanne Miller, a volunteer with the Jamestown Audubon Society. In a typical season, the society will have over 10,000 hours of volunteer work logged into their books by bleeding hearts and sympathizers from around the state.

Miller has been volunteering with the society for more than two years, and now organizes the weekend water chestnut pulls that run during the plant’s growing season in late spring until the final day of July.

“When we get a good group of volunteers out here, it makes the effort a whole lot easier,” Miller said. ”Having as big a group as possible keeps enthusiasm up which makes the process more effective.”

Volunteers for the water chestnut pulls are ferried via tractor ride back to Big Pond, armed with kayaks, floating baskets, chest-high waders, gardening gloves and cans of bug spray.

Society president Ruth Lundin hopes for at at least 10 people a week to show up to the venture. When combating this invasive species, the simple methods really are the most effective: yank and throw away. Pulled plants are loaded into floating baskets and sleds towed behind the kayaks, then buried in a mass grave near the pond.

With the water chestnut flourishing only 10 miles from the south basin of Chautauqua Lake, this issue is now a very real concern. Lundin said the plant’s four-spiked seeds — also known as nutlets — can attach themselves to the feathers of ducks, geese and herons, using them to spread to nearby bodies of water.

The Jamestown Audubon Society first recognized the aquatic aggressor in 2012 when a population was discovered in Big Pond near the society’s nature center.

“Two years ago when water chestnuts were being found, the county was perplexed as to where these plants were coming from,” Lundin said. “So that’s when we raised our head and got together with the Conewango Creek Watershed Association.”

The two organizations developed a plan for Big Pond that included actively managing a low water level via a drainage dike, cultivating local vegetation like smartweed and water grasses, and organizing volunteer “pulls” to get rid of the infestation. The smartweed shades out the chestnut, while the low water level makes it easier for volunteers to wade in and pull the weeds out.

According to the Chautauqua County Office of the Executive, two years ago individual plants were found in Chautauqua Lake near Bemus Creek and Burtis Bay, though no large populations had yet developed. Lakeshore residents and property owners with ponds should be on the lookout for the serrated, diamond-shaped rosette of T. natans in waters 15 feet deep or shallower. Anyone who spots this plant should leave it lie and contact the watershed hotline through one of the numbers listed below so it may be studied and dealt with professionally.

Water chestnut control needs immediate attention and active participation to be effective. Right now is a critical point in its growing season, and anyone concerned should contact the Jamestown Audubon Society to R.S.V.P. for a pull.

“This is really the only aquatic invasive that can be tackled directly like this,” Lundin said. “The more people who come out, the more of a difference we can make.”

The Jamestown Audubon Society has water chestnut pulls scheduled from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. Saturday, and on July 10, 12, 17, 19, 24 and 31 at the nature center on Riverside Road. Feel free to call the society at 716-569-2345, or contact them via email at waterchestnut@jamestownaudubon.org with questions or concerns.

Chautauqua Watershed hotline phone numbers: 716-363-4499, 716-753-4499, 716-661-7499.