Just days ago, squirrels could be seen scampering across a section of Tonawanda Creek on a floating mat of water chestnuts which had filled the creek bank to bank. An invasive species which “escaped” from ornamental ponds a century ago, the European water chestnut had established this worrisome foothold alongside the island in Ellicott Creek park that was created by construction of the Erie Canal. With the potential for the invader to spread further into the canal system, the Niagara River, and adjacent waterways, a response plan was put together and the remediation got underway in earnest this month.
The European water chestnut (not to be confused with the edible plant used in stir-fry) is a particularly aggressive species which can smother an entire water body, blocking sunlight from reaching fish and plants below. It also interferes with recreational use of the water for fishing, swimming, and boating. It’s been a problem in many waterways across New York and the northeast.
In Tonawanda Creek, the water chestnut was attacked with a combination of mechanical equipment and community determination to care for our waterways. A partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Lower Great Lakes Fish and Conservation Office (based here in WNY) and Erie County brought in a harvester machine which accomplished the bulk of the work. But the machine can only get so close to the water’s edge and obstacles such as the park’s notable arched pedestrian bridge, which is where a determined community coalition brought its skills — and strong backs — to bear.
Taking the lead on organizing volunteers and logistics was RestoreCorps, a joint effort by Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper and Western New York AmeriCorps. RestoreCorps brings to bear considerable knowledge, skill, and organizing capacity for habitat restoration and invasive species management. Staff and volunteers were out in force over the weekend, on the water and on land, making sure that no patches of water chestnuts escaped the removal effort. And through ongoing monitoring over the next several years, they’ll prevent the water chestnuts from being able to regain a foothold.
When invasive species enter an area, they often have few or no natural predators, and can quickly displace native species. This creates significant impacts and hardships on native animal species which symbiotically depend on native plant species for their survival. Invasive species can create other, often severe, ecological and economic consequences, and their management has taken on new focus and urgency in recent years.
New York State’s current plan to manage invasive species involves forming regional partnerships. Western New York’s partnership is coordinated by Paul Fuhrmann of Ecology and Environment. New York Sea Grant and Cornell Cooperative Extension have partnered in providing a clearinghouse for information on invasive species in New York. Among the threats giving these folks — and all of us — a bad night’s sleep are the Emerald Ash Borer (like Chicken Heart, it’s in our home state — thump thump — it’s at our back door — thump thump — ) and the Asiatic Carp which threaten to break (leap?) through barriers between the Mississippi watershed and the Great Lakes.
But for now, volunteers of all ages and descriptions are satisfied with their victory in this month’s battle to retake one of our water bodies from a smothering invader. Folks left the battlefield wet, swampy, and a wee bit worn out — but also knowing they made a noticeable difference in the environment of their community. And chomping at the bit to get to their next project.
To see more of the effort, check out this slideshow: