Boat Inspections to Keep Invasives Out of Lake George

August 20, 2014
Sarah Harris

Lake George is no stranger to invasive species. Spiny water flea, Eurasian water milfoil, zebra mussels, Asian clam, and curly-leaf pondweed have all made their way into the lake. It costs millions of dollars to keep them from taking over and to keep new species out. This summer there is a new, preventative approach to help do both: mandatory boat inspections.

There’s a reason Lake George is popular: because it’s absolutely beautiful. Chris Navitsky, the Lake George water keeper, takes me out on his boat. We stop and float in the middle of the lake in what they call the Narrows, where mountains and craggy cliffs drop into the deep blue water. “I think this is where people can still come to gain an Adirondack experience,” Navitsky says. “You can still find the little areas where you can anchor and go swimming.”

All this natural wonder translates into dollars. Lake George is the most heavily used recreational lake in New York state. Navitsky says it generates an estimated $1-2 billion a year in revenue. And it provides a ton of seasonal jobs at restaurants, resorts, and marinas. “All this ripples through the entire economy and it’s all tied to the water quality and the importance of this resource.”

This means the economy depends on Lake George staying pristine, clear, and beautiful. But invasive species threaten that. Chris Navitsky says when invasives take over, a lot happens. They create algae blooms, weeds clog the shoreline, and old shells pile up.

There have been voluntary steward programs on Lake George focused on publica education for years. But Navitsky says they weren’t enough. “We had two invasive species come in after that steward program, that voluntary program was put in, but it wasn’t as effective at really closing the door as we needed.” 

The Lake George Park Commission knew it had to do more if they wanted to keep invaders out of the lake. Members looked at invasive species prevention programs in other states and especially Lake Tahoe. They discovered the biggest threat was boats on trailers coming in from other waterbodies bringing invasives with them.  

This year they’re trying a new pilot program. Any trailered boat that comes to Lake George has to pass inspection before it goes in the water. 

There are six inspection stations around the lake. At Norowal Marina, halfway up the lake in Bolton Landing, Tommy Zinhobel is checking out Gary Knoebler’s old wooden motorboat. He crouches down and runs his hands along the boat’s sides. “I’m feeling around for anything that might feel like sandpaper cause that could be any invasives in their younger age,” he says. “In the trailer I’m looking for any weeds, milfoil, checking under the wheel wells.” Tommy says the boat’s clean and Gary Knoebler gets a sticker. All told it takes about 5 minutes. 

Gary Knoebler is from Guilderland, outside of Albany. He says he doesn’t know a lot about invasive species. “Just the fact that we’re trying to keep them out. I don’t know exactly which ones, I think it’s the small shells there.” But if all it takes is a quick inspection to help protect the lake, he’s on board. “It’s a very small inconvenience compared to saving the lake and keeping everything the way it’s supposed to be.”

Of course, not all boats are as clean as Gary Knoebler’s says boat inspector and St. Michael's College student John Underhill. 

“One boat I remember very specifically came in from the ocean and it was just covered with this green milfoil type substance. It’s funny, that guy was pretty excited that we had to decontaminate his boat, I think he was kind of looking to get it cleaned up a bit. Some boats are a lot more subtle, sometimes it’ll just be a bunch of standing water which is just as harmful to the lake.” 

When that happens John and other boat inspectors power wash the boats, drain out their excess water, and make sure they’re dry. That takes about 15 minutes and it’s free. 

Dave Wick directs the Lake George Park Commission. He says this first summer of boat inspections is going well. They’ve inspected about 8,000 boats this summer and most of them were clean. “We’re looking right now at eight to nine percent of the boasters that are coming to Lake George aren’t meeting that clean, drained, dry standard and do need some level of decontamination. But the good side is that over 90 percent don’t need that.”

The program costs about $700,000 to run for the summer. New York State is paying for half of it; the rest comes from local organizations and towns. That’s kept boater fees from rising. 

Dave Wick, water keeper Chris Navitsky, and others did their best to spread the word about the new rules before they went into effect. Wick says people have paid attention. 

I admit I was skeptical. Surely someone would say the boat inspections were a pain, that they didn’t care about invasive species, and they just wanted to enjoy their vacation. I asked around all day and I never found that person. Almost everyone I talked to could name at least one invasive species. One guy who really knew his stuff was Sean Walter, from Long Island. “I was an environmental engineer before I was a lawyer, before I was a town supervisor, so I’ve done a lot of different things,” Walter said with a laugh. He was at one of the big RV campgrounds on Lake George with his family. They had brought their boat by water from Long Island. “Take the boat from Long Island Sound up the Hudson River through the Lake Champlain Canal, into Lake Champlain, Ticonderoga and flip it in.”

All those waterways host various invasives. Which means, Walter says, “we’re one of the guys that everybody’s looking out to make sure we don’t bring invasive species.” The past few years they voluntarily washed their boat before launching it to Lake George. This year the boat inspectors at Mossy Point washed it for them. 

Nearby, Charlie Sesto’s sitting in a lawn chair near his tricked out RV and smoking a cigar. He’s from Long Island too. He’s not a boater but he loves Lake George. It’s his fourth summer here with his family. “We come to the same park, we stay in the same area, and we do the same thing over and over again because it is a beautiful lake,” Sesto says. “It is crystal clear and every time we’ve gone snorkeling you could see 50, 60 feet of water.” 

The hope is it will stay that way.

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