Open water at the end of January in Lake George isn’t just bad for ice fishermen.
It means trouble for those fighting to keep invasive species out of the southern Adirondacks’ most-popular lake.
A severe winter could help kill off some them; but a winter like this, without extended deep cold, probably won’t.
And what goes for Lake George also goes for other waters in the Adirondacks, some of which are among the wildest and purist in the eastern United States.
“It can only exacerbate the issues we are seeing not just at Lake George but throughout the Adirondack region,” said Brendan Quirion, coordinator of the Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program in Keene Valley.
But warriors in the battle against invasives won’t stop trying, and 2016 is going to see continuation and expansion of the aggressive measures already being taken across the Adirondack region.
“I think it’s a safe bet that warm weather works against us in holding back the spread of invasive species. The lake needs all the help it can get, including from Mother Nature and if Mother Nature is not cooperative, that exacerbated the problem,” said Eric Siy, executive director of the Fund for Lake George, which has helped fund eradication efforts.
Lake George invaders already include Asian clams, zebra mussels and Eurasian water milfoil, and there’s a fear that new weeds such as hydrilla will arrive.
Just as Christmas catalogs are prepared in August, the middle of winter is when plans are laid for the next summer’s fight.
After completing a two-year pilot program of mandatory boat inspections and decontaminations last fall, the Lake George Park Commission plans to make it permanent. It will be the first mandatory boat inspection program in the eastern United States, and other lake communities are eyeing the Lake George program as a potential model.
Boats that pick up tiny plants or animals elsewhere are considered a primary way invasives are spread to new locations.
“The commission believes that this program has been a success in working to protect Lake George, and this effort has been broadly supported by both the users of the lake and the public in general,” park Commission Executive Director David Wick said.
He said the lack of cold weather this winter could mean an even greater problem next summer with at least one stubborn Lake George invasive, Asian clams.
“If it’s not cold, it’s been shown they don’t have as high a [winter] mortality rate,” Wick said.
The past two winters have been cold, and Lake George researchers found the clam mortality rate was around 90 percent. This winter, however, is resembling the mild winters that are the historic trend.
The trend is something those fighting the battle are very much aware of, said Quirion, of the Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program.
“It’s kind of at the forefront of our thinking,” Quirion said. “We need to think more comprehensively about how we deal with invasives in terms of climate change.”
Looking back over decades, it’s been shown that the largest lakes, like Lake George and Lake Champlain, are freezing over in fewer winters than in the past. Neither has frozen yet this winter. December set a warmth record, according to the National Weather Service in Albany, and January temperatures remain above the historic average.
Warmer weather not only means less winter mortality for invaders, it means new species can move northward.
And any invader can be ecologically devastating, experts said.
“Most come in and outcompete the species that people care about, and it changes the ecosystem very rapidly, in a way we haven’t seen before,” Quirion said.
A 2014 study, commissioned by the Adirondack invasive species program, looked at the potential economic impacts of eight invasive species found either in or threatening the Adirondacks, including the Asian clam, milfoil, hydrilla, the Asian longhorned beetle and the emerald ash borer.
That study put the potential long-term impact at $840 million, including decreased tourism and lower property values.
“If we do nothing, we stand to lose the ecosystem we have, and it would have a devastating economic impact,” Quirion said.
The Lake George program is expected to cost about $525,000 this year, as officials said they’ve found ways to be more efficient. Two years ago, the budget was $700,000.
Other communities see the Lake George program as worth emulating.
Wick will be addressing the Pennsylvania Lakes Management Association late next month and has had contact with lake officials in Maryland. Officials from Connecticut have visited to see to the inspection program in action.
In 2015, commission statistics show nearly 28,000 boats were inspected before entering Lake George, a 40 percent increase from 2014, the program’s first year.
The number of boats requiring hot-water decontamination also rose from 2014 to 2015, from 1,264 to 1,631. The state launch site at Million Dollar Beach was the busiest inspection site, followed closely by Norowal Marina in Bolton Landing.
The park commission has voted that the program should be made permanent, and Wick said funding has been lined up for the next three years.
In 2016, the state Environmental Protection Fund will again provide $350,000. Warren County and local communities are covering the rest of the cost and boaters won’t have to pay anything.
There will again be seven inspection stations on Lake George. But for the first time, users of Trout Lake in the town of Bolton will need to have their boats inspected if they’ve used their vessel in another body of water.
Separately, the Environmental Protection Fund will be providing the Lake George Park Commission with $100,000 toward the battle against Eurasian milfoil, one of the lake’s most common invasive weeds.
State officials are preparing to continue the voluntary boat inspection and decontamination program they started across the Adirondack Park last summer. Gov. Andrew Cuomo authorized $1 million in funding for last year’s program.
This year’s funding is expected to come from the EPF, which Cuomo has proposed boosting from $177 million to $300 million.
The Adirondack Watershed Institute reported last week that during the 2015 pilot program 45,424 boats were inspected at 54 boat launches in the Adirondacks. The program also operated 11 decontamination stations. There were 156 watercraft decontaminated, with some form of invasive species found on more than 100 boats.
Quirion, who oversaw parts of the program, said he hopes the inspection system will be at least as large, if not larger, this summer. “The footprint we had last summer really wasn’t sufficient for the entire park,” he acknowledged.
Siy, of the Fund for Lake George, said the fight against invasives needs to be seen as permanent, like the war on terrorism.
“We can’t do too much to hold back the fast-spreading tide of invasives,” Siy said. “The investment we make now will pay off for many generations to come.”
Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.