Employing Youth to Stop an Invader
Through the Youth Conservation Corp, local high school students are being recruited to help the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge wage the battle against water chestnut, an invasive plant that has been taking over ponds and rivers within the Connecticut River watershed.
Water chestnut is an invasive plant native to Europe and Asia. Introduced in the United States around 1897 by a Massachusetts gardener, it is now widespread in the northeast. The plants are rooted in the soil below the water, with a long stem that extends upward to allow the leaves to float on the water’s surface.
On the underside of the the leaves, the plant produces spiked nutlets, each of which are capable of producing 10-15 new plants.
Because water chestnut is not native to the area, there are no natural predators to control the population, allowing the plant to multiply rapidly. In fact, just one acre of water chestnut can produce enough seeds to cover 100 acres the following year!
Dense mats of water chestnut can have many harmful effects, including blocking sunlight from reaching native underwater vegetation and reducing the amount of oxygen in the water. These effects can harm fish and other aquatic wildlife. In addition, the dense network of stems and leaves can wrap around swimmers and get tangled in boats, skis, and fishing gear, sometimes making recreational activities nearly impossible.
Although this plant does spread rapidly, there are a few methods that have proven very effective in controlling the population levels. One of these methods is physically pulling the plant, along with its seeds, out of the waterways. Because the roots are easy to dislodge, this can be done from a canoe or kayak without difficulty.
This summer, the Conte Refuge hired several Youth Conservation Corp (YCC) crews to help combat water chestnut infestations, among other environmental projects. Floating in canoes, the teenagers joined Refuge staff, partners, and volunteers in pulling water chestnut out of several of the waterways in the Connecticut River watershed. And together, they made quite an impact!
This summer alone, the Conte Refuge’s YCC crews have removed over 17,000 pounds of water chestnut from waterways within the Connecticut River watershed. Because each pound of plants is capable of producing about 75 nutlets, that translates to 1,275,000 nutlets removed! About a third of that amount was removed during Spike Camp, an annual week-long campout where all five of the watershed’s YCC crews gather to work, learn, and bond. This year, the group converged at Brickyard Ponds in Westfield, MA, where they worked together to remove 5,600 pounds of water chestnut from the ponds.
Their amazing accomplishments have freed up many acres of habitat for native plants and wildlife, increasing biodiversity and the health of our waterways. Along the way, they have gained experiences and skills that will benefit them in whatever their futures may hold.
For more information about job opportunities with the Youth Conservation Corp in the Connecticut River watershed, please visit the Northwoods Stewardship Center website.