Local wildlife biologists and invasive species experts from the Kenai Peninsula are scrambling to combat the invasive elodea plant recently found in two Nikiski area lakes.
Those serving on a recently assembled working group hope to kill the plant — which can damage native fisheries, impede boat traffic and lower property values — before it spreads throughout the area, as it can easily do.
So far the infestation is known only in Daniels Lake and Stormy Lake, but the group will be busy this summer testing other waters for the injurious aquatic perennial, gathering permits needed to apply herbicides and seeking funding from various sources, said John Morton, supervisory biologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
“We are moving pretty quickly on this, about as fast as we can go,” said Morton, who spoke at Tuesday’s Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting. “Right now the decision to eradicate or not is partially dependant on the fact that we don’t have money.
“The other piece is that if it is widespread on the Peninsula, it is not worth going after because we just can’t afford it. If you do the math on something like 1,000 acres — that’s the two lakes combined — that’s $800,000 to treat those two lakes right now.”
If the group’s summer research finds elodea widely-distributed in other popular area lakes, there won’t be much anyone can do, he added.
“We’ll be dead in the water and we’ll have to live with the outcome,” he said.
Morton said the elodea plant grows quickly and has been found in four places around the state — Fairbanks, Cordova, Anchorage and now the Kenai Peninsula.
“The important piece here is that you don’t need seed, you just need a tiny fragment and it can clone itself,” he said. “It spreads very, very quickly.”
Morton said the plant now covers about 80 to 90 percent of the Chena Slough in Fairbanks.
“This used to be grayling habitat, but now it is pretty much a big aquarium,” he said of the slough.
Elodea was initially discovered in Stormy Lake last fall during rotenone treatment to kill off invasive populations of northern pike, Morton said. In October, nine lakes were sampled including Salamatof, Longmere, Island, Sport, Scout, west Mackey, east Mackey, Wik and Daniels, the latter having a confirmed strand.
Morton said the project was fast-tracked and a landowner meeting in Nikiski yielded public support for treatment of the two lakes.
“We had a very large group there and people were very supportive of us doing something very quickly,” he said.
There are two types of chemicals that can fight elodea, Morton said. Diquat is cheaper and used only to suppress the plant as it does not kill the root. Fluridone is more expensive, lethal and more effectively targets the plant, but it has to be constantly monitored and regulated for a long period, Morton said.
Both chemicals have a low toxicity, are focused on plants and won’t impact the lake’s invertebrates much, he said.
“These are very, very tiny amounts and they have very quick half lives,” Morton said.
The working group in April applied for a permit to apply Diquat and sent live samples from Stormy Lake to a company that makes Fluridone. Morton said the group hopes to be applying some sort of a chemical treatment to the lakes by July.
Refuge management has provided $40,000 to the effort, which could be used to treat both lakes with Diquat, stalling the issue for the year while the group campaigns to raise money for a complete Fluridone treatment.
Another option, Morton said, is to close the boat launch at Stormy Lake, use the $40,000 on Fluridone to eradicate the plant out of Daniels Lake. For an additional $300,000, the group could try to eradicate it out of both of them, he said.
Morton said the plant probably arrived via science lab kits or from an aquarium, and was likely spread by boat or floatplane.
“This is a very, very scary plant,” he said. “You saw the price tag on this stuff, you can see how bad it would be if it started multiplying by lakes, it would be a very bad thing.”
The local working group, he said, is the first of the other state groups to pursue chemicals for treatment, because they realize they only have a “small window” to make a difference.
Morton said the group could use any money from the borough as match grant funding.
“Right now it is fairly easy to get invasive species dollars through grants, but the real stinker is that you need to have a non-federal match,” he said. “Anything the borough would provide we would leverage, absolutely.”
Borough Mayor Mike Navarre said he was interested in figuring out how to help, but said he wondered why the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Department of Natural Resources were not more involved in the project. Assembly members Bill Smith and Ray Tauriainen asked the mayor to focus on the group’s needs and find ways for the borough to help.
Navarre on Wednesday said he would consider how much money the borough could give to the effort as part of a forthcoming budget amendment.
“Clearly we would not be able to do all of what they need because, one, that’s not fully our responsibility and we don’t have the same level of resources that the state and the feds do,” Navarre said. “I think what we would look at doing is trying to help do something ... with a focus on Daniels, especially if they are going to close Stormy as they talked about to prevent further spread from Stormy.”
Said Navarre, “We’ll try to figure out a good, responsible plan, but clearly we recognize the threat and want to do something.”
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.