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She stripped a river full of this pesky invasive plant — by hand

Katie Church has yanked so many patches of the pesky invasive European water chestnut this summer, she has dreams about doing it.

“I look at the chestnut in the water and [dream of] removing it and making sure everything is clear,” she laughs.

Church has just finished leading a field team of five summer students hired by the non-profit Invasive Species Centre. The group was tasked with searching, finding and plucking the thick, rooted green invasive aquatic plant by hand along a 30-kilometer stretch of the Welland River, in Ontario’s Niagara Region.

The field team of five used two canoes and a motorboat to remove European water chestnut, focusing on a 30-kilometer stretch of the river. ‘We’re professional canoers now,’ said Church. (Submitted by Invasive Species Centre/Katie Church)

“It’s a lot of work, especially when you get into those big patches, and everywhere you look, there’s chestnut and all you want to do is remove it,” said Church, a recent graduate of the ecosystem restoration program at Niagara College.

European water chestnut (EWC for short) clogs shorelines, cutting off sunlight and space for fish and native plants. It’s also a nuisance for humans — difficult to swim or paddle through. Its sharp, spiky seeds can puncture skin and even poke through a thin sandal.

When Church started her work in July, huge swaths of the river’s edges were covered in EWC — nearly 100 percent cover in some spots. In eight weeks, the team hand-pulled an estimated 7,000 plants, filling 70 of those plastic tote containers.

Pulled plants were taken far from the water to die as quickly as possible — dried out, turned into green fertilizer and composted properly.

Graph shows how much European water chestnut was removed from the Welland River in summer 2022: approximately 7,000 plants.

During her final day on the water last week, Church scanned both sides of the river, honing her now-expert eye in on the floating aquatic plants. She saw lots of lily pads and water-milfoil, but no EWC.

“I’m very proud of our team and what we’ve been able to accomplish,” she said. “It’s a really great feeling to just fly by and be really confident that there’s nothing.”

3 known populations in Ontario

The Welland River is one of three known EWC populations in the province. The annual plant is also found around Wolfe Island, near Kingston, and at Voyageur Provincial Park on the Ottawa River, according to the Invasive Species Centre, based in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

Colin Cassin, the center’s policy manager, is not sure how the plant got to Welland. EWC travels primarily through its seed moving around, so he suspects maybe a bird picked it up or it came from a contaminated boat.

“We’re right at the nexus here between established and early introduction,” he said. “This is the best-case scenario in terms of getting ahead of it.”

Man in boat on Welland River in lifejacket stares at shoreline, looking for the invasive European water chestnut
Colin Cassin, policy manager at the Invasive Species Centre, keeps an eye out for European water chestnut along the shoreline of the Welland River. He calls it a ‘nasty aquatic invasive plant.’ (Haydn Watters/CBC)

He credits early detection. A local kayaker first spotted something strange on the river in 2020 and reported it. It turned out to be EWC, which was mapped out in 2021. The field team hit the water for the first time this year.

  • LISTEN | CBC’s Haydn Watters hits the water with a team searching for European water chestnut:

Ontario Morning from CBC Radio5:13 a.mSearching for invasive European water chestnut

When summer started, invasive European water chestnut was all over the Welland River in Ontario’s Niagara Region. A team spent the summer yanking it by hand. Haydn Watters hit the water to see their efforts.

Cassin said working in invasive species is often doom and gloom. But he’s confident this work in Welland is on the rare path to success — leading to the long-term removal of EWC from the river.

Nine plastic tote containers sit on the grass, full of European water chestnut pulled from the Welland River
After team members pulled the plants, they put them in these plastic tote containers and moved them far from the water. Each tote holds about 100 plants. The team estimates it yanked about 7,000 plants from the river over the summer. (Submitted by Katie Church)

“We hope that next year, by stopping most of these plants from going to seed, we’re going to be able to have a much lighter pull,” he says, hoping for at least a 50 percent reduction.

“If we can stop it from going to seed this year, in theory, we’ve won.”

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