Plants are mascots of the environmental movement. They clean our air! They stop erosion! They provide habitat! But what about when they’re the villain, not the hero? What about when the path to a healthier environment is removing vegetation, not adding it? Invasive species removal can be quite the mess to untangle, but removing invasive species is sometimes the only hope for some habitats and the species that call the clogged waterways home. And therefore, let’s all agree that plants can be both the darlings and the deadbeats of the ecosystems in which they thrive. We can simultaneously love them and want to rip them from the roots and get them far, far away from our local landscapes.
Our Team first met staff from the Connecticut River Conservancy (CRC) while talking about data management strategies for water quality monitoring programs across the Long Island Sound. None of us were thinking about plants. But, thankfully, program managers are constantly looking for connections and tools to address their unique program needs. So when we described the Water Reporter system’s data management structure, Gabriel Chevalier, CRC’s Lab and Special Projects Manager, made a brilliant connection between the system’s structures and her own needs for better tracking data for a water chestnut invasive species removal program. She asked, “Could Water Reporter manage different groups and volunteers that are scouting for the invasive water chestnut and then track removal activities and put all of that information on a map?”
The proposed use of Water Reporter offered a compelling, innovative approach to improving water quality that hadn’t been done before for tracking invasive species removal efforts. By the beginning of the 2020 water chestnut removal season, Chevalier had adopted Water Reporter for her data-driven methodology to effectively manage the annual multi-state, volunteer-driven removal program. The adoption reinforced their goals for data-driven, field-ready, software-supported strategies to better engage stakeholders, communicate results, generate continued funding, and improve water quality.
The invasive species water chestnut removal program is about to enter its third season after the adoption of Water Reporter. We’ve had the honor of supporting Chevalier and her colleague, Aliki Fornier, to build a unique water monitoring application in Water Reporter. Their grasp not only of the biology of these invasive species but also of the importance of data management has led to a robust program. There is hope to eradicate these pond-swallowing aquatic weeds!
We wanted to highlight both the Program, the Organization, and the expansive, multi-state organization that implements it. By the end of this article, we hope you are just as impressed by CRC’s innovative ability to dismantle all boundaries and tackle water quality issues, including ripping out water chestnuts, as we are.
The Connecticut River watershed: it’s really big
First and foremost, it’s important to recognize just how large the Connecticut River Watershed is, not just in terms of its natural footprint but also in its geopolitical diversity.
This is New England’s longest river draining 11,000 square miles, or 15%, of New England, releasing 70% of all of the freshwater entering Long Island Sound. The Connecticut River provides power, drinking water, and recreational opportunities to communities as well as offers foundational habitat for a rich variety of flora and fauna.
The headwaters of the Connecticut River begin in Fourth Connecticut Lake, a small pond near Chartierville, Quebec, Canada. Along its 410-mile path south, the river flows through forests and farmlands while demarcating Vermont and New Hampshire’s shared state line. The River continues south through Massachusetts and Connecticut’s more-suburban, multi-use landscapes, eventually emptying into the Long Island Sound. That’s four states that claim jurisdiction over the waterways and countless communities that can make decisions on their landscapes that will impact the river.
The watershed is home to twelve species of freshwater mussels, including a federally endangered species. Six federally threatened and endangered species call habitats within the watershed home. Most of which are found at the tidal wetland area (36 river miles) at the mouth of the river. The area offers critical resting and feeding habitat to migrating shorebirds, waterfowl, and fish while harboring the piping plover, the Puritan tiger beetle, and the shortnose sturgeon.
Like most rivers in the United States, humans have made significant alterations - from damming to factories established on the banks. The first full barrier dam was constructed in 1798 mere centuries after the arrival of Europeans in the area. At last count, over one thousand dams have been erected on tributaries. And along the mainstem of the river, sixteen dams obstruct natural passage. These instream adaptations and ongoing community development increase vulnerabilities to natural ecosystem services but also provide critical infrastructure to the local communities, such as electricity and drinking water.
A watershed-wide commitment to connecting river issues and all stakeholders
Since the 1950s, the Connecticut River Conservancy (CRC) has been the voice for the entire Connecticut River watershed. The goal of the founders was to create an organization that would confront the river’s immense water pollution problems and embodied what was then an innovative concept: watershed planning. The CRC is a membership-based organization that prides itself on building partnerships with other watershed organizations across all of the jurisdictions within the Connecticut River watershed.
Water recognizes no political boundaries. The brilliance of CRC is that, by working across state lines, the staff at CRC create programs that foster relationships and rally watershed-wide investments that reinforce their foundational strategies. Their programmatic work crosses many disciplines including science, education, enforcement, engagement, restoration, and advocacy.
What is clear from CRC’s program portfolio is the importance of its volunteers. The staff focus many of their resources on building volunteer-centric programs that empower individuals to engage in meaningful work to improve water quality and perpetuate all of the positive effects that result. Along with engaging in an extensive restoration program that has planted nearly 70,000 trees and removed 18 dams in the past ten years, volunteers provide critical support in cleanup, invasive removal, and monitoring programs. This includes a quarter-century of Source to Sea Cleanups that engage over 1300 volunteers annually and remove more than 1200 tons of trash from the watershed. Every year, community science volunteers pull nearly 26,000 pounds of invasive water chestnut plants, collect over 1,700 water samples to test for bacteria, nutrients, and microplastics, and identify and rescued sea lamprey nests. CRC carefully tracks all of this data to inform their advocacy and enforcement efforts on legislation that protects and restores the river, tributaries, and community action.
Of the many programmatic arms of the CRC, three stand out as addressing water quality issues:
- Identifying and addressing point and nonpoint source pollution,
- Removing invasive species; and,
- Installing best management practices to improve habitat and restore landscapes and re-establish healthy species populations
The remainder of this article will focus on the invasive species removal program, as that is what CRC uses The Commons’s Water Reporter application for.
CRC’s Invasive Species Removal Program
Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) are non-native plants and animals that have been introduced to the region with severe and damaging results. Water chestnut (Trapa natans) and hydrilla (hydrilla verticillata) are abundant throughout the Connecticut River watershed. These aquatic plants have the potential to fully cover still and slow-moving waters up to 16-feet in depth. They outcompete native plants and replace habitats for sensitive wildlife, including migratory fish. These plants can also crowd out boaters, anglers, and those who want to recreate in infested waters, causing economic and quality of life loss.
The water chestnut is native to Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, Western Europe, and Africa. In 1877, the species Trapa natans was introduced to the United States from Europe. It was planted in Cambridge Botanical Garden and other ornamental ponds. The plant, unfortunately, hitchhiked beyond its intended home and began growing in Massachusetts’ Charles River. It continued its spread throughout the watershed and along the east coast, eventually making it as far south as Virginia and Kentucky.
The program's ultimate goal is to remove water chestnuts from ponds and rivers where they have established themselves, giving each water body a chance to re-establish a healthy ecosystem where endemic flora and fauna can thrive. Understanding the plant’s biology and reproduction processes have led to a science-informed extraction program with a better success rate. The plant spreads from seeds. Therefore, the feasible option to control the spread is to remove the plant before the release of its seeds. Once released, water chestnut seeds are viable for twelve years. The data collected from the program informs not only programmatic direction but also broader legislative strategy about the continued spread of this plant.
Overview of the monitoring program
Beginning in the 1990s, the Silvio O. Conte Refuge led an effort to stop water chestnuts from spreading further within the watershed. Many organizations stepped up to foster removal activities in individual lakes, ponds, and coves throughout the watershed. Thanks to hundreds of volunteer hours from these partners, many groups were working to control water chestnuts from dropping additional seeds at their individual sites. In 2017 the organizing member at the Conte Refuge, Cynthia Boettner, announced her retirement from the US FWS. The Connecticut River Conservancy stepped into the resulting vacuum of leadership and got to work transforming the previous hyper-local and segmented effort into a watershed-wide coalition of organizations and individuals working towards the eradication of water chestnut.
The program in its current form synchronizes a watershed-wide coalition of individuals and organizations to engage through communication, removal, and reporting. More than fifty trained volunteers and organizations scout their local lakes, ponds, and coves for water chestnuts, identify hot spots ripe for removal, and document the results of their removal efforts.
Timing and data tracking are the cornerstone metrics of this program. The removal season happens annually from May through September, however, behind the scenes preparation and training begins in March, and analysis and information sharing extend into the postseason. Removal has to be timed with not only the reproduction cycle of each population but also the life cycles of other invasive species that cannot be touched during their reproductive period.
For full eradication of the water chestnut, volunteers must perform scouting and strenuous removal efforts while staff engage in widespread education efforts and detailed documentation to track patterns of outbreaks. Four CRC staff contribute to program management. Responsibilities include training volunteers and equipment distribution, volunteer management, data management, and analysis, results sharing, and website hosting.
CRC maintains a database in Water Reporter of all known infestations of water chestnuts and their level of concern. These locations are fixed and monitored annually. Because the water chestnut continues to spread and appear in new water bodies, volunteers also scout for both observations of new infestations and general observed conditions that may indicate the arrival of water chestnuts.
CRC coordinates with the volunteers whose sites need a physical removal. They connect volunteers to the sites and plug any equipment or capacity gaps that may have otherwise sunk a removal effort. Volunteers time their removal events with the reproduction potential of the plants and the presence of hydrilla. Once a removal event is scheduled, volunteers head out to the site, conduct the removal responsibly and then report back to CRC on a variety of parameters such as intensity of infestation, last monitoring date, and estimated square footage.
Use of Water Reporter
Water Reporter serves as the data management hub for the Invasive Species Removal program. The CRC Team manages the list of “active” infestation sites as a Water Reporter continuous monitoring data source. Volunteers enter data from both scouting and pulling events into the Water Reporter form, which the CRC team can then verify and ingest into the primary database. Now, all watershed-wide efforts have a collective repository that validates the impact of their efforts.
Digital Data Collection for Data Sources
The digital data collection form structures what volunteers report. Including the volume of water chestnut removed, quantified by the type of bag used to contain the plant, the estimated weight of the filled bag(s), a photo to help understand the scope of the infestation, the distribution of the plant, estimate how much of the area they treated in their efforts, and a percent cover post-pull. The form also asks volunteers to conduct an observational assessment of the presence/absence of other vegetation (including Hydrilla). Finally, contributors indicate the total volunteer hours worked during the removal.
The form, unlike the submission of a paper sheet, expedites data delivery and improves quality control for the data. It also reduces opportunities for providing irrelevant or incomplete information. And finally, it delivers the data in a machine-readable format rather than requiring the CRC staff to dedicate time to data transcription and formatting. The result is a collaborator-populated data source prepared for simple analysis, visualization, and information sharing with a variety of stakeholders.
The CRC team uses the default Water Reporter map to build a map visualization of their scouting and pulling efforts. The indicator-rich map appears on the publicly accessible pages of the site steward portal.
The page also lists all of the resources that volunteers may need to engage in the program, including training materials and links to download the Water Reporter mobile application.
Outcomes and Successes of the Removal Program
The data collected through the Water Chestnut program has been used to engage with state officials, organizations, private property owners, and the general public. With the data easily available and portable, the program leads can more easily show where the biggest infestations are and use this information as a lead-in to a deeper diver conversation about water quality and river health.
Data has been used in submitting testimony in support of HB 5143, an Act Establishing an Office of Aquatic Invasive Species in Connecticut.
Finally, since adopting Water Reporter, participating organizations have increased from thirty to more than fifty. More participants increase the removal efforts.
We are excited to watch the program expand, but not the water chestnuts.
More information about the Invasive Species Removal Program can be found on the Stopping Invasive Species page of the Connecticut River Conservancy website.