Of all the aquatic plants, none is more beautiful than the water lily (Nymphaeaceae). In my travels in the Chautauqua Watershed, I have seen fragrant white ones and yellow bullhead lilies in the wild and many different pinkish ones in ornamental ponds. I love to photograph them, and almost everyone recognizes the lilies in Monet's paintings. The contrast of the bright, white flowers against the dark-green, floating leaves me breathless, especially if there is a reflection. It's hard to think badly of something so beautiful, but are they becoming a problem in some parts of the watershed?
While kayaking this summer in Burtis Bay, I noticed water lilies becoming established along the shoreline and in the shallows. This year, with the lack of rainfall and overabundance of Eurasian watermilfoil and curly-leaf pondweed, the water flow has been compromised and wave action severely limited. It's been quiet in the bay, and the water lilies have decided this might be a nice place to take root.
According to an Internet article I found, water lilies have become a major problem in Washington state (www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wq/plants/weeds/aqua005.html). Shallow lakes are the most at risk. In 1974, Giffin Lake in eastern Washington had about 11 to 25 percent of its surface covered with emersed plants. Two decades later, 100 percent of the lake was covered with water lilies. Without being managed, the lilies have restricted access, navigation and swimming. In some of their integrated aquatic plant management plans, "the fragrant water lily was considered the second nuisance plant after Eurasian watermilfoil."
Left unmanaged, water lilies can quickly cover the water’s surface in shallow areas near the shore, making navigation nearly impossible.
Photo by Arlene Bonnett
I'm not saying water lilies are all bad. They are food for beaver, muskrats, porcupines and deer. Small patches of water lilies, with some open water around them, provide excellent cover for large-mouth bass, frogs and pan fish. The demon side of these beautiful plants comes out when they take over and become so dense they prohibit any water movement. This lack of movement creates areas of low oxygen, which isn't good for fish and other aquatic creatures. Then, these dense stands of vegetation allow blue-green algae and other debris to congregate, creating one smelly mess. They also provide a hiding place for the water chestnut to grow undetected. I personally helped eradicate an extremely large water chestnut plant, loaded with nuts, hidden in the water lilies on the Chadakoin River.
The Chadakoin River is the only outlet for Chautauqua Lake. Everything that comes into the lake eventually goes out through this river. Think of the lake as a giant bathtub, and the river as the drain. If the drain is clogged up, eventually the water will run out, but what is left in the tub? Sediment. Everyone is worried about the sediment build-up in the lake, but is anyone worried about the water-lilies clogging up the Chadakoin so that it can't flow freely? If not, I think we should take a closer look.
Water lilies reproduce with seeds and when the rhizomes break off and float to a new spot. The flowers are pollinated, and the stalk "corkscrews" to create the seed-filled fruit below water. Unchecked, they can cover the surface of a waterway in no time at all. But they can be managed. Opaque fabric over the bottom sediment has been used, and some riparian have tried the process of "carbohydrate depletion," (a process where all of the emerging leaves are removed). They can be cut and harvested like other aquatic plants. People have also experimented with underwater rototilling and excavation. Some biological means have been tried, but there are no effective ones at this time.
Chautauqua Lake is one of our most valuable assets, and she is in trouble on more than one front. We all can make a difference in her health and well-being, but sometimes hard questions need to be asked. For instance, is it time to look at ways to control the spread of water lilies?
The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a private nonprofit organization with a mission to preserve and enhance the water quality, scenic beauty, and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. To sign up for e-news updates, find out more information on watershed care or support CWC's conservation activities, visit www.chautauquawatershed.org or call 664-2166.