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Michigan Lakes, Tax Dollars Threatened By Invasive Species

John Tucci

Michigan has more than 11,000 inland lakes. They’re places where people like to swim, boat, and fish — and many people buy lakefront property to do just that. But Eurasian watermilfoil — an invasive aquatic plant — could change that and it’ll hurt more than just the people who own lake houses. 

The Problem With Milfoil

Eurasian watermilfoil forms thick mats of green and brown tendrils on the surface of a lake. That makes it hard for boats and swimmers to wade through the water. 

John Tucci founded Lake Savers LLC — a business that controls unwanted aquatic plants — after having trouble with Eurasian watermilfoil in his own lake. He recalls how, shortly after his family moved in, his wife pulled their baby daughter out of the lake after a swim and found her covered in brown, smelly muck.

“It just dawned on me that if we can’t swim in front of our own house on this lake, why do we have this property,” said Tucci.

Lower Property Values Mean Less For Local Governments

Many of those lake houses aren’t cheap. A study by Michigan State University showed that, ten years ago, inland lake properties generated $3.4 billion a year for local governments in Michigan.

Scott Brown is the executive director of the stewardship nonprofit Michigan Lake and Stream Associations Inc. He says today that number is probably close to $5 billion a year.

“The little mom-and-pop cottages that were built back in the 30s and 40s and 50s are being torn down in favor of these 5,000 square foot mansions, that as you might imagine, generate a lot more tax revenue,” said Brown. 

Credit John Tucci

Things like Eurasian watermilfoil make living on the lake less attractive, which means property values go down. When property values go down, so does the money for things like local schools and fire departments.

John Speeter is the supervisor of Pavilion Township and president of the Long Lake Association. He says he’s seen the impacts of this.

“During the period of time where there was lots of weeds in the lake and we had maybe 30 to 40 percent coverage, the sales on Long Lake went way down,” said Speeter. 

So, Long Lake residents started paying about a hundred dollars each to treat it with herbicides every year. But if left untreated, it still comes back.

“It kind of begs this question of: Well, if all of this management is being done on this species, why does it continue to be everywhere?” said Ryan Thum of Montana State University.

A New State Grant Aims To Study Milfoil Treatment

Ryan Thum and his team in Michigan recently got a $370,000 grant to study watermilfoil statewide. Watermilfoil doesn’t die easy. It can hitch a ride with boaters who travel from lake to lake and last year, Thum’s team discovered that it can even play dead. That happened after they treated Gun Lake with herbicides.

“They looked pretty dead for a few weeks, but after four weeks — and the study was done with scuba divers — we were able to show that the individual plants that looked like they were dead actually started regenerating,” said Thum.  

Thum thinks the key to milfoil’s resilience could the plant’s genes. He says some milfoil have genes that make it more resistant to herbicides — especially hybrid watermilfoil, a cross between invasive and native varieties. Thum says the new grant will help researchers to identify those resistant genes in a way that’s faster and cheaper.

For now, that process is not so simple. Paul Hausler is a senior scientist of the lake management company Progressive AE. He says it takes weeks to get results back from the genetic test. So long, Hausler says, that sometimes you miss your treatment window for milfoil — the spring and summer months. The test is also pretty expensive.

“The clients that we work with are not that willing to spend thousands of dollars just to find out what type of milfoil you have,” said Hausler.

Even so, Hausler says genetic testing for milfoil could save property owners thousands down the road.

Are Herbicides The Solution?

But some wonder if herbicides really are the answer. John Tucci of Lake Savers is one of them. He says the state needs to be looking into other solutions to the milfoil problem.

“We like to say there’s only three things you need to know about lake management and lake restoration - nutrient reduction, nutrient reduction, and nutrient reduction,” said Tucci.

Tucci says his company aims to stop fertilizer from washing off lawns and into lakes — which keeps a lot of pesky plants at bay, not just milfoil.

“All of this fertilizer becomes the fuel that overgrows the lake with weeds and algae,” he said.

But some lake residents are already running out of money to keep the weed under control. Darrell Smith is a retired professor living along Pike Bay in the Keweenaw Peninsula. He says he and his neighbors have paid about $100,000 to treat watermilfoil on the Bay for five years.

“It’s the last one that we have the money for quite frankly,” Smith said.

If lake residents can’t pay, Smith says they’ll have to propose a local millage — a cost that he knows his neighbors outside of Pike Bay likely can’t afford.

“State grants that I’ve seen at least seem to be aimed at the study of the problem rather than the eradication of it — and that doesn’t help us at this point," he said. "We’re past the study phase and we’ve got to get rid of it.”

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