Volunteers uproot first water chestnut shoots

Larry Ulfik has dropped off a load of water chestnuts as Gail Porter brings one in. (photo by David Gordon)

Larry Ulfik has dropped off a load of water chestnuts as Gail Porter brings one in. (photo by David Gordon)

The key to eradicating water chestnuts in the Esopus Creek is catching them early, said Susan Bolitzer of Esopus Creek Conservancy, displaying some of the weeds she had pulled a week earlier and comparing them to last week’s crop.

The leaves in the later harvest were nearly twice the size of the earlier ones, and the seeds, while still tiny, were beginning to take on the classic menacing shape – picture a walnut with sharp spikes sticking out from the shell.


Gail Porter, one of the volunteers on Sunday, May 26, said several people had said they would be interested in harvesting the weeds. At 9 a.m., when the work was due to start, only three had shown up at the village beach: Porter, Bolitzer and Larry Ulfik. They began harvesting after a quick cup of coffee and a bagel.

After two hours a modest pile was on the shore, as the three kayaks made repeated trips out to the long chestnut pasture just off the opposite shore. That side of the creek is the Esopus Creek Conservancy, and the plants appeared to be choking the shoreline.

What made Porter volunteer? “I love the preserve,” she said. She lives in Barclay Heights, and the preserve is visible from that area. Boating near the Esopus Bend Preserve had become nearly impossible over the past few years because of the plant, she said.

Ulfik said he plans to compost the weeds and see whether this would be a viable way of disposing of them. He thought the nuts would decompose over the course of a summer, though it might be necessary to break them up first, he said.

The good news is that the infestation was much lighter in the section that was cleared last year, said Bolitzer, the sparkplug behind Esopus Bend Nature Preserve. “If we can keep it up, there will be less weeds to pull each year,” she said. It will be a long haul, though, as the seeds remain viable on the river bottom for up to 12 years.

Bolitzer, Ulfik and Porter were about to pack up to leave when Steve Shafer and Ellerbe Cole rolled up at about 10:30 a.m. offering to lend a hand. They didn’t have a kayak, but Bolitzer’s rowboat was tied up at the shore, and they took that out. In two trips they were able to gather a respectable pile of weeds, Bolitzer said.

The water chestnuts are not just a hazard for swimmers and a barrier to boaters. Fish depend on dissolved oxygen in the water to live, and the water chestnuts cut off the supply. They shade out the sunlight that green underwater plants need. The many aquatic animals that depend on the fish or plant life are also deprived of a food source, though a few, like squirrels, enjoy the highly nutritious nuts.

The weed spreads quickly, with each plant producing eight to 10 of the long-lived nuts, Bolitzer said.

Aside from heading out to the river in a kayak, people who want to help can pile the weeds on the shore as they come in, take them home for their compost piles, or move them to a site where they could be picked up and hauled away. Last year, the village of Saugerties provided trucks to remove some of the weeds. If the weeds can be stored at a site near the beach, they will shrivel fairly quickly, Bolitzer said.

Unloading of boats and kayaks, and piling the weeds away from the water, could save time and effort for the people who are out cutting or pulling the weeds, freeing them to make more trips across the creek.

On Sunday, June 2, the Esopus Creek Conservancy will sponsor a “pull and paddle” for volunteers to remove the weeds. Personal floatation devices are required to go out on the water, and people with boats should bring them – canoes, kayaks or rowboats are fine.

There will be a potluck breakfast, and weed-pullers should be out on the water about 9 a.m. Most volunteers have been pulling weeds by hand, though a pair of garden shears or a large knife might make the job easier. Heavy gloves will prevent painful cuts from the sharp spikes on the nuts.

This year’s project is the opening of a wide channel through the weeds to allow river access to and egress from the Esopus Bend Nature Preserve, Bolitzer said.

For more information on the project, contact Bolitzer at (845) 246-1931 or email susanbolitzer@gmail.com.