Weedy Nuisance: Some on Oxford’s Squaw Lake assail Eurasian watermilfoil removal practices
Common sense would tell you that if the lawn is long, it’s time to cut it, so it should follow that tall aquatic weeds need to be removed. Why then is Oxford Township resident Gary Ohlgart asking neighbors on Squaw Lake to stop pulling water weeds from their property?
“Just because you own property on the lake, it doesn’t mean your property stops right there,” Ohlgart said, gesturing to the lake from his beach on the northwest side of the lake. “You have to think of everyone else.”
There is an expectation among waterfront residents like Ohlgart that neighbors will coexist for the benefit of their lake — a belief that what damages your lake, damages everyone’s lake. That’s the way it had been since the 1980s, when Ohlgart was an up-and-coming beef jerky industry expert and moved his family to the once pristine shore off Harwood Drive. Then the weeds came.
Eurasian watermilfoil — or myriophyllum spicatum by its Latin name — has been creeping through North American lakes since Gilligan’s Island first aired on television. It may arrive by boats, birds or water currents, but controlling the aquatic invader after it takes root is more like a horror movie for Squaw Lake residents than a shipwreck sitcom.
Steve Arb said he started seeing more weeds about two years ago, almost a decade after moving to shore of Squaw Lake. Thick beds of Eurasian watermilfoil now blanket most of the lake’s bottomland, with the exception of two 50-foot holes near the center of the lake that provide scarce swimming locations free from weedy entanglements.
“It’s shrinking the lake because you can’t go close to the shore because the weeds are so thick,” Arb said, steering his pontoon boat away from a patch of Eurasian watermilfoil poking up through the water. “We used to water ski here and drop the kids off to swim. There used to be a rope swing there on the shore that they would swim to. They don’t swim to the rope swing now.”
“It has spread like wildfire,” Ohlgart said of Eurasian watermilfoil from the bow of his boat. “It’s ruined the lake.”
A closer look at the lake from Arb’s boat provided more perspective on the spread of Eurasian watermilfoil in the lake. Along the shoreline, under docks, dangling from boat propellers and floating freely in open water, mats of cut and raked Eurasian watermilfoil fragments were abundant. Considering also the weed’s ability to root and form new colonies from just a single fragment, Arb and Ohlgart said any efforts to rid their own lakefronts of Eurasian watermilfoil is futile unless all the residents agree to work together.
Perusing the edges of the lake, Ohlgart and Arb point out a pontoon boat equipped with a hydraulic lift system attached to a raking grate on the underside of the deck. They said one of the residents they hope to get on board with the Eurasian watermilfoil mitigation effort uses the rig to pull up the weed from shallow lakefront areas and push it out into the deeper parts of the lake, eventually drifting along the bottom or floating along the top to all parts of the lake until they take root or wash up on the shoreline.
They said they believe he is offering a service to property owners to clear their weeds, but it is ultimately helping spread more Eurasian watermilfoil at new locations or properties that have been harvested or treated with herbicides by a licensed applicator.
Dick Pinagel, president of the Michigan Aquatic Managers Association and owner of Aqua-Weed Control, said raking or pulling Eurasian watermilfoil and then dumping it back into the lake would definitely contribute to the spread of the weed throughout the lake.
Ohlgart said he acquired an herbicide applicator’s license from the state in order to learn more about the Eurasian watermilfoil problem. However, efforts to speak to the person doing the raking in Squaw Lake haven’t been successful.
“He rammed into my paddle boat,” Ohlgart claimed, recounting his story of trying to block the man’s pontoon boat in a canal so that he would stop to speak. “So, I jumped into the water in front of his boat so he would have to talk.”
Ohlgart said he wasn’t able to convince the resident to stop dropping the trimmed Eurasian watermilfoil back into the lake after it’s cut. Likewise, Ohlgart said the man doing all the cutting insists he isn’t doing anything illegal or anything that isn’t permitted under the state’s environmental laws because he isn’t adding or removing anything from the lake.
“The guy cut about a week ago and there are stems still washing up,” Arb said of the weed debris. “All the beaches were clean a few weeks ago.”
“It’s like taking a dandelion and blowing it everywhere,” Ohlgart added.
Inspecting the shallow water in front of each resident’s shoreline, it was easy to tell where raking had been done. At some homes the thick, green beds of Eurasian watermilfoil that ring most of the lake stop and start in relation to property lines; others have mostly clear bottoms that are sprouting new weeds. With other vegetation, such as the celery grass that’s found in Squaw Lake, subsequently pulled out during the raking process, new Eurasian watermilfoil returns and crowds out the native aquatic plants.
“It’s a very destructive process,” Pinagel said of clearing bottoms of weeds and leaving large amounts of fragments behind. “Many times, it does more harm than the use of a selective herbicide that is made to go in.”
According to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) Water Bureau, which regulates weed control actions in Michigan’s public waters, mechanical harvesting of weeds — such as cutting plants above the lake bottom without soil disturbance — doesn’t require a permit from the state.
Likewise, insignificant removal of vegetation done by hand via pulling, raking or cutting, doesn’t require a permit. However, larger scale removal of plants may require a permit from the DEQ’s Land and Water Management Division, according to the DEQ Water Bureau.
The DEQ’s website also states that the “disposal of harvested material within inland lakes, on Great Lakes bottomlands, or in wetlands isn’t allowed without prior written approval” from the Land and Water Management Division.
Back at Arb’s dock, Ohlgart reached into the water and pulled up a handful of loose, floating Eurasian watermilfoil. While Arb said he had his waterfront property treated in June and July for the exotic weed, new roots spawned by fragments washing ashore had already been established by mid-September.
“I used to rake it up. When you get the roots out, you think that is going to help out, but…” he said, gesturing to the mats of Eurasian watermilfoil that surrounded the docks.
Pinagel, with Aqua-Weed Control, said while he wasn’t familiar first-hand with the issues at Squaw Lake, individual property treatments probably wouldn’t do much to control new Eurasian watermilfoil from taking root if fragments are routinely left in the lake water.
“If the whole lake was infected, we would approach the DEQ and try to get a permit and treat the whole lake with a Sonar application … and take out all the milfoil for them,” Pinagel said. “We do that all the time … those are the best ways to handle that kind of problem.
Although Pinagel said herbicide treatments such as Sonar have been successful in controlling Eurasian watermilfoil, Ohlgart said Squaw Lake residents don’t have a lake improvement board or any central organization to work within as a group to apply for permits and pay for whole-lake herbicide treatments, and that individual property owners go about weed control on their own.
“Look at this,” Ohlgart lamented while picking up milfoil fragments from his own beach and adding to a pile of weeds about the size of 5 pounds of cooked spaghetti he pulled from the shoreline the previous week. “This was all clean.”