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Volunteers open war on weeds

Fanwort, Eurasian water milfoil, curly pondweed and hydrilla are among the enemies, and humans, their chief enablers.

That's why Mike Sicord spent Saturday morning, the opening day of fishing season, manning the state boat launch at Rogers Lake, working alongside Santy Patana, the boat launch attendant for the Rogers Lake Authority, checking boats for plant debris and talking to boaters about the problems caused by invasive plants.

Just a broken stem or seedpod of one of these invasives - hitchhiking in the crook of a trailer, the well of a skiff or the reel of a fishing line - can spread an infestation from one waterway to another.

"I live on the lake. I grew up here," said Sicord, a member of the authority. "We want to keep it in good condition, but some of the boaters need to be educated. This is the first time we've made a concerted effort to check boats for weeds."

Rogers Lake, in Lyme and Old Lyme, is already suffering an invasion of fanwort in one area and milfoil in another, said Dennis Overfield, also an authority member. He noted that the proposed budgets for Lyme and Old Lyme include more than $80,000 to combat weeds in the lake. The weeds foul boat propellers, litter beachfront yards and interfere with swimming and fishing.

Overfield, Sicord and Patana prepared for their new role as volunteer invasive weed guards one evening this month at the Rogers Lake West Shores Association Clubhouse. There, Gwendolynn Flynn, environmental analyst with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, trained them to join an army of about 75 monitors who man boat launches around the state. The year-old program teaches volunteers how to identify and prevent the spread of invasive weeds, inspect boats and educate boaters about the problem.

"We've been talking about invasives for years," she said. "We started this program to reach out to more people."

Invasive weeds - and invasive animals like zebra mussels that have infested four lakes in western Connecticut - are more than an aesthetic concern, Flynn said. They can erode waterfront property values and the diminish value of a waterway for boating, fishing, swimming and waterskiing.

They pose a safety hazard to swimmers and boaters, harm native aquatic life and diminish water quality, she said.

"And it requires a lot of money to clean them up," she said. "We don't have the budget to eradicate them. We believe education is the best method."

During the training, the volunteers learned how to conduct a boat inspection - basically, checking every nook and cranny for weeds, removing any debris into a plastic bag or bucket and throwing it in the trash, not back in the water. Following a script, they learned how to tell boaters about invasives and the "Clean, Drain, Dry" procedure - checking boats, pulling off and disposing of weeds, draining all water and washing boats between uses. They show boaters how to do the inspections themselves.

"You can ask the boater where they've been and say, 'Why don't you go down the street to the car wash and wash your boat off before you come in?" said Flynn, advising on how to deal with a boater with an especially messy vessel. "You do have the right to ask them not to come in. They can tell you 'no.'"

The volunteers, she explained, don't have the authority to enforce state boating laws that require vessel operators to inspect and remove debris from their boats or face a fine of up to $95.

They can, however, take a photo and contact the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Division of State Environmental Conservation police about a violator.

"But we prefer the soft approach," she said. "Involve the boater and educate them how to do the inspection. You don't have enforcement powers, but you do have the powers of persuasion."

Sue Coffee of Old Lyme took the training class last year. Coordinator of the Friends of Gardner Lake in Salem, Coffee said she wanted to learn how to prevent Gardner Lake from having to deal with the same problems she sees plaguing Rogers Lake.

"We don't even waterski in Rogers Lake any more because the milfoil is so bad," she said. "I think this is important for everyone who uses the lake."

Gale Balavender of Salem also took the class, and last summer spent a half dozen afternoons at the Gardner Lake boat launch, donning the bright yellow T-shirt that DEEP issues to volunteers.

"I would talk to them as they came out of the boat launch, asking them if they knew to check for weeds and to drain their boat. Then I'd do a mini inspection," said Balavender, who owns a cottage on the lake. "They were very friendly. Most of them were pretty familiar with the problem and were glad to oblige."

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