As State and Federal Efforts Wane, Phragmites Control is Left to Private Efforts

Much of the Connecticut River is fringed with phragmites.

Its light green reeds grow thick and tall, shutting out native plants, mucking up the water for native birds and fish and shielding the waterfront from view.

Ten years ago, controlling this invasive plant was a major focus for both the state and federal governments. The Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service often had grants available to fund shoreline restoration projects.

With consistent herbicide application and diligent mowing by a team of seven full-time employees, and many more seasonal workers at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the native landscape was starting to reemerge.

Today, the picture is very different.

Phragmites root sends up new shoots at each node (Courtesy of DEEP)

“It’s painful to drive by these places now that looked good there for a while and now are almost fully phrag again,” said Roger Wolfe, the Wetland Restoration and Mosquito Management Coordinator at DEEP.

At one point the state had made inroads in Stonington, Sterling, East Windsor and West Haven as well as along the Connecticut River. 

 “Now you drive down 95 and it’s all you see,” Wolfe said. 

Unfortunately, phragmites control is not the kind of one-time expense best suited for federal grants.

“It’s not a quick fix so they aren’t going to keep throwing money into that,” Wolfe said. “They know it is a long-term ordeal and one to three years of hard work is not going to do the trick.”

The regrowth isn’t just due to a lack of available grants, however, there is also simply no one left in the department to do the work.

“We lost a lot of people through attrition and not rehiring. We need worker bees and there is no one doing the work,” Wolfe said. “It’s so difficult, it’s just so difficult. There are hundreds and hundreds of acres…We have to just be happy with what we can get.”

And what they can get is maintenance of a select few areas including Lord Cove.

Phragmites spraying with Marsh masters (Courtesy of DEEP)

For the state, the focus has shifted away from phragmites and on to another pressing invasive, hydrilla.

“There is a lot of focus on aquatic invasives right now, especially hydrilla,” Wolfe said. “It simply mucks everything up.”

And unlike phragmites, there may – but just may – be funding coming for the hydrilla control.

In 2019, the legislature passed a bill that would require all Connecticut resident boat owners to purchase a $5 invasive species stamp and out-of-state boaters to purchase a $25 stamp in order to operate a boat beginning in 2020.

Funds from this program were earmarked for restoration and rehabilitation of lakes, rivers and ponds – specifically those damaged by invasive species.

But with the focus almost completely on COVID-19 and massive impact to the state budget this year, Wolfe said nobody is quite sure if that money will still be available for its intended purpose.

It’s now on private landowners

Although the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has lowered their expectations, private mowers are still in the phragmites fight.

“It’s all about being consistent and persistent,” said Malcolm Hill, a private contractor and former seasonal worker for the Wetland Restoration Program at the department. “You need to do four years in a row at a site in order to make a lasting difference.”

Hill, like other seasonal workers, left the department in 2013 frustrated at the decline in funding he was beginning to see for phragmites control. At that point, he decided to start his own business mowing phragmites for private landowners, land trusts and towns. Unlike DEEP, he decided not to use any chemical applications, instead he just mows. And mows. And mows.

He spends three to four years restoring a site and then returns each summer to inspect and pull any encroaching phragmites.

Most of Hill’s clients are long-time homeowners in Madison, Old Lyme and Old Saybrook who have watched their view of the Sound and rivers slowly disappear as the phragmites grew.

“My clients often have tears in their eyes when I’m finished mowing, they haven’t seen the water since they were young,” Hill said.

Hill said he hopes more and more private landowners will learn that there is something they themselves can do about phragmites on their property.

“If you take an interest, this is a problem you can solve at least on your land,” he said.

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