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Cattail Caper

Sometimes Mother Nature needs a hand. Low water levels on the St. Lawrence presented environmental groups the perfect opportunity to help. On October 10th, dozens of seventh grade Environmental Science students from Alexandria Central School pulled on their boots and headed to Wellesley Island.

Their adventure was part of the Save the River In the Schools Program—an effort not only to educate, but to involve the next generation of riverkeepers in a hands-on project.

Lee Willbanks, the new director of Save the River, and Kate Breheny, Save the River’s Program Manager, greeted the seventh graders. Also on hand was by a duo from SUNY-ESF (College of Environmental Science and Forestry), Dr. John Farrell, and a graduate assistant, Matt Regan.

First, the students heard how stabilized water levels have changed river habitats. While lower water levels suit those on the shore of Lake Ontario, those of us in the Thousand Island region like the water level a little higher. Mother Nature hasn’t had an opportunity to voice her opinion. As it turns out, Mother Nature likes variety. She craves a little of both high water and low water to keep the balance.

The current water management system has favored cattails while other meadow marsh plants have suffered. The loss of meadow marsh habitat has affected many species, including dabbling ducks, and northern pike. There’s been a 70% reduction of northern pikes in the St. Lawrence due to this loss of habitat. Did I hear a collective gasp from all you fishermen out there?

Next, the students marked off plots and counted the cattails inside the plots. With the mental work over, they needed to employ muscle. Save the River staff handed out shovels and buckets. The students grunted and struggled to remove some, but not all the cattails within each plot. If you were viewing this on TV, this is when a flashing disclaimer would scroll across the bottom: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. Cattails are  protected in New York State and this project is under the supervision of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

The students didn’t plant seeds. The seeds of marsh meadow plants are already in the historic seed bank, waiting for their chance in the sun. Lee Willbanks explains, “And what we'd hope to see is a return to areas where you have what's called meadow marshes, which are mixtures of vegetation and open water that support the indigenous species like pike, bass, and waterfowl, so that they can breed and live and return to the numbers that they used to be in.”

But no amount of yanking up cattails can make up for the damage done by the water levels regime of the last 50 years. Save the River wants to get the word out that a proposed new plan – called BV7 – would help marshes like Eel Bay return to greater biodiversity.

Save the River will keep the kids apprised of how their plots are doing. But hopefully, more will come from this romp in the cattails. Along with new mixtures of vegetation and a healthy marsh meadow habitat, a new generation of riverkeepers will grow.

New York State Parks’ Mina Anthony Common Nature Center and the Thousand Islands Land Trust also ran related educational activities as part of the students schedule for the day.

By Lynn E. McElfresh, Grenell Island

Lynn McElfresh presents two articles this month.  This is the second of several articles she will present this winter in partnership with Save the River.  Click here To see all of Lynn’s contributions to TI Life.

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Len McCauley
Comment by: Len McCauley ( )
Left at: 11:08 AM Sunday, December 16, 2012
If anyone plans to remove cattails you should probably contact the Cataraqui Region Conservation Authority if your in their jurisdiction. I do believe they will allow landowners to remove 100 square feet or 3 metres by 3 metres per year from your waterfront.
Anonymous User
Comment by: Anonymous User
Left at: 3:59 PM Thursday, December 20, 2012