There’s a battle raging on Lake George.
But unlike the French and Indian War battle more than 250 years ago, this time the enemy is tiny, sometimes about the size of a fingertip. And it hides on the 2,000 boats that enter the lake after tooling around in other bodies of water.
Invasive species — both plant and animal — crowd out native species, disturb water quality and annoy people who are boating, fishing and swimming.
Organizations and municipalities that have a stake are working to come up with a plan to prevent invasive species from entering the lake.
“We’re doing a fair-to-good job. We’re not doing a great job,” said Dave Wick, executive director of the Lake George Park Commission, the state agency charged with overseeing the lake.
The commission will hold an open house Wednesday to collect public input and educate people on four options for dealing with invasive species. The meetings takes place from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m., with presentations at 2:30 and 6:30 p.m., at the Fort William Henry Conference Center.
The commission plans to release a draft plan by mid-October. Commissioners and Gov. Andrew Cuomo would each then have to approve it.
The four potential strategies include continuing boat inspections and boat washing that lake stewards are doing this year on a voluntary basis, using a new, portable power washer; making the inspections and washings mandatory; asking boat owners to certify that they have read about invasive species on the Internet and that their boats are clean, drained and dry before they enter the lake; or doing nothing about invasives, a strategy Wick said the commission is not seriously considering.
Mandatory inspections are believed to offer the most protection to the lake, and that’s what many lake protection advocates prefer, including the nonprofit Fund for Lake George, which employs Lake George Waterkeeper Chris Navitsky.
The portable boat washer began the summer in Hague and is stationed through the end of this month at Norowal Marina in Bolton.
More to come
Officials need to act quickly and come up with a plan, said Bolton town Supervisor Ron Conover. Any delay opens up the lake to more exposure to invasive species, especially ones that don’t exist there now as well as ones officials have been fighting for years.
“These new invasives move so fast,” Conover said.
It’s a task made even more urgent since the discovery in late July of the spiny water flea, a type of zooplankton that is harmless to humans but can eventually affect the fish population.
“There’s a lot of concern that we need to move on this as quickly as possible,” Wick said.
The translucent, quarter-inch-long organism clusters with others of its kind and gets tangled on fishing lines. It eats native zooplankton in the water, out-competing those species, but then isn’t itself very tasty to young trout that eat those native organisms, according to Navitsky. So it gradually kills the fishes’ food supply.
Other invasives that have made their way into the lake include Asian clams, Eurasian milfoil, zebra mussels and curly-leaf pondweed.
The Asian clam is tiny, about a half-inch. Its population can explode to 10,000 clams per square meter and then there’s a mass die-off, leaving behind thousands of shells and bacteria in the water that encourages algae bloom, Navitsky said. The algae and bacteria would eventually make the lake’s water undrinkable, Navitsky said.
Lake George has high water quality, and many nearby residents get their drinking water from the lake.
The waterkeeper has been using special mats on the floor of the lake to kill the clams in the spring and fall.
Zebra mussels were discovered in the lake in the 1990s and have been mostly controlled, Navitsky said. Eurasian milfoil has been in the lake for 30 years, and officials have it pretty well under control by using divers to pick it as well as mats.
Still, “We’re still seeing milfoil coming to our launch sites,” Conover said.
It’s hard to eradicate invasive populations if they’re still coming in from outside, he said. “It’s like you’re trying to heat a house with the windows open.”
The lake does not yet have water chestnuts, the plant hydrilla or quagga mussels, and officials hope to prevent their entry.
The mussels clog lake water intakes and cut swimmers’ feet.
“Those are really aggressive and can really take over a water body,” Navitsky said, and there’s no known way to get rid of them.
Hydrilla crowds out native plants, as does water chestnut. The chestnuts also make it tough to paddle through the water, and the needle-like barbs sticking out of the seed pods are painful to step on.
Ralph Rivera had a firsthand run-in with water chestnuts — in a boat he brought for inspection to the Norowal Marina. The Bolton resident brought his downstate friend’s boat to the marina to put it in before his friend came up for a visit, consenting to inspection because the boat had been in the Hudson River, which has more than 100 invasive species, last year.
During the inspection a couple of weeks ago, Rivera spotted some prickly globes in a coffee cup inside the boat.
“I looked, and I go, ‘What are those things?’ ” he recalled.
It turned out the friend’s children found the water chestnuts in the river, thought they looked interesting and carted them onto the boat, he said.
Rivera, who also keeps his own boat in the lake, favors mandatory inspections.
“I worry about my lake,” he said.
He also believes paying for the washes will encourage boaters to take responsibility for cleaning and drying their own boats before they get to the water.
Wick said the Lake George Park Commission would have to figure out whether and how much to charge boaters for washes.
“If we’re charging people $100 for an inspection and decontamination, that’s not going to work,” he said. “We just have to figure out where we’re going to get the dollars to make that happen.”
The portable wash unit that the commission started using this summer cost $25,000, paid for mostly by four towns around the lake that have an economic interest in keeping out invasive species. Queensbury, Lake George, Bolton and Hague each paid between $5,000 and $10,000 toward the washer.
Bolton has a dedicated line item in its budget for combating invasive species, Conover said. This year it budgeted about $20,000, and Conover expects that number will probably rise.
The boat washer uses a high-pressure sprayer that shoots out 140 degree water, Wick said. The combination of the water pressure and heat is usually enough to kill anything on the boat. The water is then recycled, sent through a filter to remove any damaging organism before it’s used again.
“There is no water that leaves the site,” Wick said.
Some invasive species, such as the Asian clam and zebra mussel, cling to spots on the boat that are difficult to reach or see, and their grip is very tight.
“To do a thorough decontamination, you gotta get in all the nooks and crannies,” Wick said. “It’s not a five-minute car wash.”
The current voluntary inspections are done only at certain launch sites and certain times of day. If someone declines to have their boat inspected by a lake steward, the steward can’t force compliance, Wick said, but the owner can be stopped if invasive species are visible on the boat while the owner is launching.
Boaters can do their part to keep invasive species at bay by cleaning their boats when they come out of the water, draining the hull and bilge and allowing the boat to dry for at least seven days.
Or people can just limit their boating to one body of water, as about 16,000 boats registered to operate on Lake George do.