Battling a plant that starves the creek

Spider Barbour piles weeds he has collected on the shore. (photo by David Gordon)

Water chestnuts, a noxious weed not to be confused with the Chinese delicacy, have been slowly taking over the Esopus Creek. Under the auspices of the Esopus Creek Conservancy, a group of dedicated citizens is starting to make a dent in the weed’s progress.

The group has purchased a weed cutter, which it is planning to use on weekends through the summer to remove the chestnuts, said conservancy president Susan Bolitzer. However, while it waits for the loan or donation of a 5-horsepower motor to run a jon boat, which would carry the battery-powered mower, volunteers are cutting the weeds by hand from canoes and kayaks.


Artist Ze’ev Willy Neumann has been a leader in the effort.

“We have boats, but we need people to come over and grab that [plant] by hand,” said Neumann. “It’s really easy; you pick up one and a whole bunch of them come together as you pick it up, and you just haul it into the boat. In fact, it’s fun.”

As if in response to his call, passerby Bill Harrison stopped to help haul a canoe to shore and unload it.

Four canoes, working for about two hours, assembled a respectable-looking pile of weeds, though it would be hard to see much difference looking out over the river. The experience in other communities has been that once a section of chestnuts has been removed, the growth is much sparser the following year. Still, weed removal will have to become an annual activity if the creek is ever to be weed-free, Bolitzer said. “We expect we’ll be doing this for years.”

The seeds can keep producing for up to 12 years, so “we know this will be a long-term project,” said Bolitzer. “It’s pretty labor intensive, because even if we have a machine to cut [the weeds], we still need to bring the cut parts up to the beach and they need to be carted away.”

Chris Nealon, a neighbor of Neumann, did the research to find the machine. “I went to one of the Esopus Creek Conservancy open meetings, and I decided to join,” he said. He became interested in the weed control issue, saying that “the community will have to decide if it wants to have this get worse and worse and eventually jump the bank and come over here, or do something about it. Anyone with hands and a boat and a clipper can do a lot.”

Finding the machine wasn’t difficult, Nealon said. “I just did a search for aquatic weed control.”

An alternative would be to poison the plants with herbicides, but even though the herbicides are said to be safe for humans, Nealon was sure many people would not want to swim in water that had been treated with the chemicals.

The weeds will return if the community doesn’t stay vigilant, said Ed Hunlock, whose house abuts the beach. He recalled that at one time, the village maintained the creek. “Years ago, when [Robert] Yerick was mayor, they bought a machine to cut down the water chestnuts,” he said. “They hired a guy, and I guess something happened – the machine broke and they never repaired it. At the time it may not have been important enough to the village to find out if it was repairable and to have it repaired.”

Motorboats could cross to the other side of the creek years ago, but now only kayakers can get there. “Anything with a motor would get stuck over there,” Hunlock said. “It would jam the propellers right up.”

The four boats were out from about 9-11 a.m., but Nealon and Neumann went out to pick up another load as some of the other participants left. For those who missed out on the initial effort, the group hopes to continue weekends through the summer.

Organizers are hoping that on future summer weekends, more volunteers will participate in the cleanup. Once the cutter is working, the weeds will have to be removed as quickly as possible, and more boats will be needed to bring them to shore. The Village of Saugerties Department of Public Works has agreed to haul them away, Bolitzer said.

When the cutter is in operation, volunteers won’t have to cut by hand anymore, but they’ll still be needed to gather the cuttings and bring them back to the shore.

For more information on volunteering in this effort, call the Esopus Conservancy at 246-2047.