NAPLES — Its lines are far from elegant, but the retrofitted pontoon boat that was launched in Sebago Cove on Tuesday morning quickly proved itself a powerhouse for fighting variable leaf milfoil.

The boat was converted into a giant lake-going vacuum cleaner this summer. Minutes into its maiden voyage, it was sucking up long strands of the invasive aquatic plant, which is choking waterways throughout New England. But even with the new boat and other efforts, the cove will never be free of the milfoil.

“It is a problem that needs continuous, ongoing work,” said Stuart Leckie, vice president of Save Sebago Cove.

The organization was formed three years ago to eradicate the weed from the roughly 200-acre finger of water at the northern tip of Sebago Lake. This summer’s above-average temperatures and abundant sunlight have produced a bumper crop.

Save Sebago Cove is among seven lake associations chosen by the Maine Milfoil Consortium for a multiyear program to combat variable-leaf milfoil. The consortium, which includes Saint Joseph’s College in Standish, the Little Sebago Lake Association, the Maine Congress of Lake Associations, the Lakes Environmental Association and the Maine Volunteer Lake Monitoring Program, received a $500,000 federal grant to fund a study of weed control efforts.

Other lakes in the study are Little Sebago Lake in Cumberland County, Messalonskee Lake and Pleasant Pond in Kennebec County, Shagg Pond/Lake Christopher and Thompson Lake in Oxford County, and Lake Arrowhead in York County.

Native to the Southern United States, variable-leaf milfoil can form dense mats that clog the water, crowd out native aquatic plants and degrade the habitat of fish and other wildlife. It spreads by fragmentation, often when power boats churn and chew it up.

No one knows when milfoil arrived in Maine, but it may take years to detect. Invasive aquatic species have been found in 32 bodies of water, all of them in southern Maine. Variable-leaf milfoil, the most common, has been found in 26 lakes, rivers and ponds.

Not all milfoil is bad. Some species are native to Maine.

“But you don’t see them very often,” said Jacolyn  Bailey, director of the consortium project.

The goal of the project is to come up with the best methods for eradicating the plants. Besides using boats, the project is assessing the effectiveness of mats that block sunlight so it can’t reach the milfoil.

Controlling an infestation is expensive. Bailey said the Little Sebago Lake Association spent $100,000 to start its milfoil control program.

Save Sebago Cove has budgeted $30,000 to $40,000 a year to keep the cove clear. As a member of the test project, it received $13,000 to buy and equip the boat – a diver-assisted suction harvester.

Homeowners around Sebago Cove showed up Tuesday to watch the operation, which requires a boat captain, a diver who pulls up the plants by the roots and vacuums them up, and a spotter in a kayak.

“This is the road for my boat to Sebago Lake,” said Pat Drake of Naples, who keeps her boat at the Sebago Pines Association beach on the cove.

Dana Callanan, who lives on the opposite side of the cove, said all of the homeowners on the cove – there are about 300 – are affected by the milfoil.

“There is a huge amount of it,” Callanan said.

While the milfoil is bad for lakes and ponds, it’s great for gardens, said Bailey.

Saint Joseph’s College students will compost the milfoil that gets pulled up from Sebago Lake. Although it’s not recommended for use on gardens near water bodies, it makes a rich addition to soils inland.
“It is filled with nutrients,” said Bailey.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: [email protected]