Where things stand on the Saugerties water chestnut invasion

(Photo by Joscha Feta)

(Photo by Joscha Feta)

The history of the concerted effort to control the spread of the invasive water chestnuts, those pesky plants that mar the shoreline with their green leaves resting on the water’s surface and prickly seeds often referred to as cow heads, is not a short one. The battle along the Esopus Creek in Saugerties began nearly five years ago.

The aquatic plant, so ubiquitous in Saugerties as to inspire a large red likeness sculpted by artist Ze’ev Willy Neumann installed at the beach, is impossible to eradicate entirely. The best that can be hoped is to control the spread, which is what members of the Esopus Creek Conservancy, who maintain the Esopus Bend Nature Preserve, have attempted to do.

Focusing on a single section, they took it as their charge to clear a path large enough for kayakers to use. Over the past several years, the group used a variety of methods to do so, from manually cutting the plants to using a lake mower, a mechanical weed-cutter that attaches to a boat.


In 2015, with the help of the mower, a six-horsepower motor, a bigger boat, and approximately 40 sessions of volunteers going out on the water, the group managed to cut what Skip Arthur, treasurer of the Conservancy, called “a pretty good path.”

Though the path is still visible from the village beach this year, it is not as clear as it was last year. A number of reasons for that have been given.

First, the group only went out to tackle the water chestnuts three times this year, far less than the more than three dozen times the year prior. Since this is a volunteer effort, Arthur explained, it is sometimes challenging to get people to commit their time. It took hundreds of hours to clear the swath in 2015, an enormous accomplishment.

Arthur wonders “how many people really care.” The number of people who use the path for kayaking is not very high. Is this the best use for the conservancy’s limited resources?

Perhaps the most significant reason for the reduction in effort is the fact that milfoil, a fast-spreading, fernlike aquatic plant, has become visible where the water chestnuts have been removed. This plant doesn’t break the surface, unlike water chestnuts, so it doesn’t impede kayakers like the water chestnuts do. Milfoil, when pulled up, may reroot, so Arthur says its human opponents have “backed off,” not wanting to exacerbate a different problem while trying to address the first one.

At this point, Arthur says, his group is not ready to “take on” the milfoil. They do intend to meet and plan how to proceed in the future, according to Arthur. One thing is pretty certain. They do not want to use the last-resort method of spraying poison into the water.

Arthur relays a story of a community in Otsego that worked diligently to remove the water chestnuts from their shore for ten years, only to have the Department of Environmental Conservation spray pesticides into the water to eradicate them. This, he says, is not what the group wants to happen in Saugerties.