Phragmites! We Can Be Mightier

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Photo Credit:hopefoote

Your Lake Charlevoix Association is ready to wrestle with the reeds that are threatening our shoreline. To win, we are going to need your help.

The problem is phragmites australis, an invasive grass that, if not checked, can grow into a 16-foot high wall of stalks that will drive out all the native growth along the shore. If you don’t believe they can do that, take a drive along Saginaw Bay or look at some photos from Beaver Island before they took action.

Happily, LCA members were quick to recognize the phragmites (frahg-MY-teez) plant and the danger. More happily, we have just gotten a $5,000 grant from the Charlevoix County Community Foundation that will let us mount a significant attack this summer and fall. Ours will be a two-pronged effort centering at first on educating riparians in what they should (and shouldn’t) do right now. The second part comes in the fall when we hope to have additional grant money that will let us apply a water-safe herbicide that can kill the roots and then take down the phragmites stands.

But we need you to help us by taking responsibility for your shore and maybe for a few of your neighbors’. It won’t take long and it won’t be hard. And it is very much in your best immediate and long-term interest.

Right now we are in the early stages of the infestation. A survey by snowmobile last winter found just over 100 active site of phragmites growth on Lake Charlevoix, with the heaviest infestation along both sides of the South Arm. The next most worrisome area is the northeastern shore. Most of the sites are not more than a few hundred square feet – so far.

But the phragmites root (technically, a rhizome) can grow 50 or 60 feet a year, putting up new stalks as it goes. The plant doesn’t usually spread under water, but it loves the wet areas immediately along the shore line. The low water levels of the last couple of years opened up substantial areas of beach where phragmites have easily established themselves without a lot of competition from native grasses.

It is not entirely clear how phragmites spread to nonadjacent areas, but at least some of the colonization happens when bits of roots break off and float to another location. The rebuilding of the Holy Island bridge, for example, required a lot of digging in the shallows that broke up the rhizomes and may very well have contributed to the severity of the problem in the South Arm. One LCA member reports picking up three garbage bags of roots in just a few minutes along her shore close to Holy Island.

For now, the best thing you can do is to learn more about the problem, study how to identify the plant and get familiar with the resources that will be coming along. LCA has run three workshops so far and later this month will conduct workshops to train volunteer surveyors. After a resurvey that we’ll lead, we will contact the owners of all infected properties, asking permission to treat the stands. You can help by checking the interactive map on this website, and letting us know if we have missed anything.

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Photo Credit:alanenglish

We understand the impulse to try to uproot the plants now, when they appear as relatively vulnerable short green shoots. Please don’t. The available evidence is that taking down the small stalks only encourages the root to be more productive and to stretch out over even greater distances. Herbicides applied now are mostly useless because they don’t get down in the root system as they will when applied properly in the fall. Trying to pull the roots out by hand leads to broken root fragments which are easily dispersed to adjacent sites. Be patient.

We have applied for a state Department of Environmental Quality permit that would cover the entire lake. That would spare property owners the cost (perhaps several hundred dollars) of an individual permit. It would also let us go ahead with seeking a state grant to pay a contractor who has experience with applying the most effective herbicide, one which had very limited short-term impact on the water itself. After that application, which would be a week or so after Labor Day, we intend to harvest the seed heads of the plants and to cut down the stalks.

We will still need permission from the property owners to let us on their property to carry out the treatment. (Some townships on the lake have already adopted an ordinance that would compel a property owner to allow the treatment and the rest are expected to follow suit. But we think of that as a very last-resort because it is so much in the interest of the property owner to let us help him or her do the job.)

We expect to assemble a corps of volunteers who will help the property owner cut off and bag the seed heads so they can be disposed of properly and who will help cut the stalks which can be burned on the beach. Be careful, they burn hot! What we do this year will, we hope, deal a mighty blow against this invasive grass. But it won’t be the end of the effort. Those roots can be persistent, and many of the sites may have to be treated several years in a row. We’re preparing for that and will keep you informed all along the way.

You can help by signing up as a volunteer. You can help even more by being a shoreline representative coordinating the effort over several miles of shore. Details for signing up are available on the website.

For now, we urge you to get involved and protect this lake. We can do it. But we will do it best if all of us work together.