At first, Larry Smith didn't know what it was.
Just some long dangly lake weeds, and mildly annoying.
"We always called it spaghetti weed," said Smith, who is summering on Lake Irene for the 10th time.
Two or three years ago, though, the weed began getting out of hand in the 642-acre lake just northwest of Miltona. Residents found themselves scraping great bales of it off their shores, and detangling it from their boat motors.
Smith joined a handful of lakeshore owners — "Four bubbas on the beach," joked one of them, Bob Strawn — who decided to take it on. What they found was that it was not a native plant, as many had assumed, but an invasive plant called curly leaf pondweed that the DNR allowed to be sprayed. Native plants, like coontail and large-leaf pondweed, provide important food and habitat for native fish, waterfowl and other critters. Curly leaf pondweed is not among their kind, and in fact will drive out the native plants.
It also threatened to drive out the landowners, who didn't enjoy cleaning the tangled mass off their shores.
"I did that duty for four years and then said to the guys: Either we get this weed problem fixed or we're selling our cottage," Strawn said. "We had a Realtor out this spring to give us an appraisal. ... I was dead serious. I was not about to end my life with a heart attack scrubbing CLP from the beach."
While the four neighbors were talking, someone else down the shoreline was fretting over the mystery weed.
"We always had weeds to a point, but nothing like this,” said Marcie Vickerman, who has owned a lot on Lake Irene since 1989. “We have a Jet Ski and it would be like a mat, just a wall of weeds a couple hundred yards out from our place and we really had to gun it to get over it or it would get into your engine. ”
Lake Irene isn't the only area lake dealing with curly leaf pondweed. Lake Osakis is also, and residents there are taking steps to form a Lake Improvement District to raise money to spray.
Vickerman and some neighbors also approached the DNR for solutions, and the DNR advised all the neighbors to get together to tackle the problem. One resident rounded up the addresses for those in the targeted area, and together, the neighbors knocked on doors and sent email messages and letters. They had to get permission from each property owner to spray the weeds in front of their shoreline, and every neighbor except one gave permission, they said. So they couldn't spray within 150 feet of his shore.
Mark Ranweiler, a DNR invasive species specialist who helped the Lake Irene property owners, said individual owners often seek permission to spray the area in front of their home, but that it's uncommon for them to get together unofficially, and that this is the first time he's heard of it in the dozen-or-so west-central Minnesota counties that he covers.
"Most of the time it is through a lake association or Lake Improvement District,” he said.
Because they got together and are planning to tackle the problem in future years, they were allowed to spray more acres than they otherwise would have. Normally, the DNR only allows 15% of the area where the weed grows to be sprayed, in order to protect native plants. In this case, that would have been 36 acres. However, the DNR permitted them to spray 51 acres, and will work with them on creating a formal written lake vegetation management plan.
The DNR does not have the funds to treat weeds in every lake, so the cost of the spray falls on lake owners, unless they are able to get grants.
Treating curly leaf pondweed can be expensive, depending on the depth of the water where it's found, and so organizers weren't sure if everyone who lives on the lake could afford the cost, which was expected to be $700 to $1,000 per landowner. Several families offered to underwrite the project, Strawn said, although the cost came in much lower than expected, at $28,000, and was further reduced by an $11,000 grant from Douglas County. Organizers were able to pay for it all with voluntary contributions.
Curly leaf pondweed can only be sprayed in the early spring, as it begins growing before native plants. It was done this spring, using an herbicide called Endothall. The U.S. EPA says Endothall is safe in drinking water at low levels, and residents are now happily boating and Jet Skiing on their side of the lake.
“I’m very proud of how the two groups worked together,” said Steve Kettler, who has come to the lake for 15 years and now lives year round there. About 77 property owners signed onto the project, which he called "pretty amazing in today's world."
Kettler is seeking a spot on the lake association board, as is Vickerman, because some members have retired or moved away. Even though the loose group of neighbors were able to accomplish their goal, each would like to see the Lake Irene Preservation Association involved.
“It needs to be part of an organized structure," Kettler said. “We know it’s not a one-and-done thing; you’ve got to have a consistent approach to it. ... You’re going to have people come and go from the lake as people age. You want a consistent approach to managing the weeds on the lake.”
In the past, the lake association has focused on stocking walleye and hosting a pork chop feed, said President Clement Suchy. However, he thinks the lake association could take on the weed spraying in the future, as long as everyone contributes to the cost. His own lakefront was sprayed along with everyone else's this year, and he appreciates the absence of weeds, although he said there is now an unsightly slime that reminds him of the ring around a water tank for cattle.
He hopes someone from the DNR attends their annual meeting in August and can identify the slime.
"You wouldn't want to swim in it, I can tell you that," he said.
Residents on the lake say there's now a clear difference between the side that was sprayed and the side that wasn't. Jason Cook, who lives on the unsprayed west side, said the weeds are so bad that people in the boat parade aren't even able to get close enough to throw candy to the kids on the docks.
"They need a cannon to reach our dock," said Cook, who bought a cabin on Lake Irene in 2010. If the lake looked then like it looks now, he and his wife would have had second thoughts about buying there, he said. He has concerns not only about the impact on human traffic, but on waterfowl as well, as he has seen ducks and geese appear to struggle when swimming through it.
He would be open to efforts to control curly leaf pondweed, he said.
One question is what caused the curly leaf pondweed to get so bad two or three years ago. Some residents suspect it was zebra mussels, which have also invaded their lake, and which are notorious for clearing the water, which helps plants grow. However, the DNR also says nutrients can be a cause, carried there by heavy rainfalls or human activities like building roads or houses.
Whatever the case, neighbors were alarmed by the increase and feared that the problem would worsen in coming years. Those on the south and southeast side of the lake say they believe there will be a general push among all the lake owners to tackle the problem.
“People on this side of the lake are absolutely delighted. We don’t have a weed problem on our side of the lake," Strawn said. “Four bubbas on the beach decided we were going to do something and we went together and did it.”