Visiting from distant Oklahoma a couple of weeks ago, 5-year-old Teresa found much about Evergreen to her liking. She liked hiking in a mountain park. She liked collecting pinecones. She liked climbing on rocks. And she particularly liked pedal-boating on Evergreen Lake, with one small proviso.
“We kept getting stuck,” Teresa said.
Stuck? On a boat? In a lake? Kids really do say the darnedest things, although in this case Teresa’s statement is less fanciful than factual. Seems the mini-mariner and her crew ran afoul of the lake’s passive-aggressive and, lately, perplexingly plentiful plant population.
“It was everywhere,” Teresa said, without apparent resentment. “I touched it with my hand. It was kind of slippery.”
Meet elodea canadensis, a highly successful (and slippery) North American native known more commonly as simply elodea, even more commonly as waterweed, and perhaps most commonly — to anglers and pedal-boaters, anyway — as a confounded nuisance. Fact is, the ponds, lakes and canals around Teresa’s prairie home are probably hip-deep in the aquatic perennial, and elodea has been a good neighbor in Evergreen for years.
“It provides good natural habitat for all the little critters that live in the lake,” said Matt Mitchell, who’s manning the Evergreen Nature Center for the Evergreen Audubon Society of a bright Saturday morning. Mitchell seems to know everything there is to know about waterweed except its PIN number, and he’s happy to share. “Elodea’s great for the macroinvertebrates that ducks and geese like to eat, like crayfish and nymphs, and I’m pretty sure that ducks eat elodea.”
Eat it they do, with relish, and waterweed’s beneficence toward Evergreen Lake’s organic community goes even deeper.
“Submerged aquatic vegetation adds dissolved oxygen to the water, which benefits fish,” Mitchell explained, “and it takes excess nutrients from runoff and fertilizers out of the water. Excess nutrients can cause algae blooms, which are bad for everybody.”
Sounds like waterweed should be getting a good-citizenship award, not condemned as a troublemaker. Then again, if elodea has a fault, it’s a tendency to immoderation, and where scattered pockets of waterweed offer interest to the eye and refuge to the hunted, great floating mats of it create a navigational hazard that can foul the rudder, the paddles and the temper. Waterweed’s present unpopularity stems from two factors, the first being its singular manner of reproduction.
Finding tenuous anchor in a muddy lake bottom, elodea sends up a thick forest of thin stems that (conditions permitting) will continue growing indefinitely and may reach lengths of 10 feet or better. Upon breaking the lake’s surface, each stem produces a single white or lavender three-petaled flower, which casts its pollen adrift upon the water. The pollen bobs along until it runs into another flower, making the lake’s surface the plant’s primary pollinator. It’s a unique adaptation that’s made waterweed a going concern from Worcester to Walla Walla, and would scarcely merit mention if it weren’t for the second factor.
“Elodea loves warm water, and the lake is warmer than usual this summer,” explains Lake House supervisor Brad Bednar. “The Mount Evans watershed didn’t have the amount of runoff it normally does, and we’ve had a lot more days in the 90s. That raised the water temperature, and the weeds just took off. It’s not really a problem ecologically, but it does make it hard for the boaters, and it could ruin the skating season if we don’t get it out of there.”
As to the best method for getting more than a hundred tons of soggy vegetation “out of there,” opinions vary. Skimming lightly across the lake on her sporty orange kayak, 12-year-old Chloe, an Evergreen resident and Evergreen Lake regular, found the waterweed annoying but manageable.
“It sticks to your paddle every now and then, but it’s not too bad,” Chloe said gamely. “You could probably catch it with a big net and drag it to shore.”
Can’t argue with that — simple, direct, a large solution to a large problem. Nine-year-old Jason, up from Highlands Ranch with his dad and his little brother, 3-year-old Justin, contemplated a more studied approach.
“You could get all the fishermen to aim at it and pull it in,” Jason explained, the idea clearly improving in his estimation as he spoke. “Like fishing for seaweed!”
Fresh from the bosom of the lake, Teresa based her answer on recent experience.
“Take two pedal-boats,” she pronounced with more-than-5-year-old authority. “Have the people in one boat scoop the seaweed into the other boat, then bring both boats back.”
While there’s a certain poetic justice in Teresa’s plan, Bednar decided to go another route. For starters, plans are afoot to introduce elodea-munching grass carp to Evergreen Lake. While the unglamorous fish don’t make particularly good eating, they do a lot of it on their own account, and they’ll swim a mile for a mouthful of waterweed. Until then, the solution lies with human labor and ingenuity, and last week crews from the Evergreen Metropolitan District lashed up a giant rake out of PVC pipe and cement-wire mesh, and began sweeping the lake’s deeper regions clean. Closer to shore, combined EMD and Evergreen Park and Recreation District teams have been employing hip-waders and standard-issue garden rakes to defoliate shallow-draft zones.
The intention has never been to eradicate the prolific plant, only to cool its ardor. Even so, the elodea harvest has been so, um, bountiful, that nothing short of heavy equipment is capable of manhandling the enormous, tangled mounds of water-laden waterweed piled up at water’s edge.
“It definitely takes a lot of effort,” Bednar says. “We’ve already gotten 12 or 13 dump-truck loads out of this, and we’re not done.”
Which begs the question: Exactly what does one do with a couple hundred thousand pounds of elodea-non-grata? We again turn to our panel of experts.
“It could probably be food for some animal,” suggested Chloe, although she pointedly struck human animals from the list of possible diners.
An artistic fellow, Jason saw the beauty within the waterweed.
“You could make crafts out of it,” he said. An excellent thought, Jason. And what sorts of crafts did you have in mind? “Just … you know … crafts.”
Jason’s little brother took a more robust approach to the problem. Justin sported a pair of brand-new, neon-green sneakers and seemed determined to get his folks’ money’s worth out of them. He hopped, then jumped; he took long steps; he took short steps; he shuffled and raced and stamped and galloped down the boardwalk, all the while visually monitoring the shoes’ performance.
“Make shoes out of it!” Justin piped excitedly.
If Teresa was thinking along similar lines, she stands at least a head taller than Justin, which may explain the greater scope of her vision.
“Make a house out of it,” she offered, as cool and confident as you please. When asked how slippery wads of wet waterweed could be fashioned into walls, doors and roofs, Teresa seemed genuinely surprised at the question.
“You stack it, of course. That’s how you build things.”
Noun: Any of various small, submersed herbs (family Hydrochariteaceae) of the genus Elodea, including the ornamental waterweeds having grass-like leaves. Widely used as aquarium vegetation. From the Greek helodes, marshy.