Many of these whirling watercraft operators are piloting a new device that promises efficiency, efficacy, and most importantly accountability. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, biologist Jessica Fair and Keith Mangus, project manager at Applied Aquatic Management, took me out on the lake to explain how this small, inconspicuous device will revolutionize the management of invasive plants.
The U.S. Congress has often left the management of invasive aquatic plants to government agencies and their contractors through its enacted “The Rivers and Harbors Act” of July 3, 1958, Public Law 85-500, Section 104. Since the 1800s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and their partners have taken on the daunting task of maintaining our Florida waterways (and minimizing) the impacts of invasive aquatic plant species. Invasive species cause economic losses of more than $138 billion in the U.S. annually.
Invasive aquatic plant species can clog up waterways, which may slow down or stop the transportation of recreational vehicles and commerce. Large mats of water hyacinth can take out a bridge or lock gate and outcompete native plants.
In order to stop the destruction of infrastructure, USACE and its partners are using three methods of management: biological, mechanical, and chemical. Each process varies in its effectiveness depending on the species of aquatic plant being treated – leaving the team to rely heavily on data to determine the best method in invasive aquatic plant reduction.
For years, our public has called for more transparency on the process and efficacy of invasive plant management. The urgent appeal has increased with the awareness of how precious our water resources are and the fragility of the ecosystems that depends on them.
Florida Fish and Wildlife (FWC), is an active partner in the management of invasive species.
Mangus said, “FWC took a pause from managing invasive plants to ask for feedback from the public. The response was: no one is overseeing the contractors, and they are out there spraying everything." This was just one of the many reasons agencies and contractors alike saw the opportunity and decided to revisit finding a solution to meet the publics' request.
FWC engaged its partners as they worked to find a way to provide more oversight.
It was biologist, Andrew Dew from FWC that had the insight and ingenuity to modify and create a program that does more than just giving oversight.
Dew and his team had been looking at new technologies to implement, that were adaptable for the methods used by state and federal agencies to manage invasive plants.
Dew explains how he came up with the idea. "We finished a project where we were using some GPS units, and we noticed that there was a signal and there were inputs on the wire. I started testing things out, and I figured out that I could rig up a switch valve to the herbicide tank and then use that to pair it with the GPS”.
Once FWC was able to install the system, they realized that they could also monitor, mechanical management systems. Dew noted that the GPS unit had already been developed just for a different purpose. "I just repurposed it and adapted it to use with our current technology."
With the device and the platform still in its early stages, FWC invited partners like USACE and local contractors to demonstrate the tool and invite them to be a part of the pilot program.
Fair said, "USACE wants to become more transparent in our spray programs. We want to work together to improve oversight and to be able to compile more accurate surveys of invasive aquatic plants; this program can do that and more."
In an airboat with Fair and Mangus, using the FWC's Spray Tracker platform on their cell phone they quickly located the contractors’ licensed applicators piloting the device.
Upon reaching one of the applicators, he shows us an inconspicuous brass valve and a black box fixed to the back of the pilot’s seat.
Mangus proceeds to explain the process. "The Spray Tracker is an internet-based platform. It is a simple GPS tracker unit that has inputs and a Solenoid valve that opens and closes as the applicator is applying gun pressure. As this is happening, the platform records two separate tracks one track that shows the navigational path of the airboat in one color and a track that shows the spray path in another. That spray tract indicates where we have actually treated the invasive aquatic plants."
Mangus further explains that this is an essential tool for the industry. This GPS technology makes sure that the licensed applicators are working in the designated areas and are being efficient. The platform also shows parameters that need to be avoided, such as “snail kite nesting buffer zones” and water intakes.
Fair and Mangus then take off to another location on the Lake. When we arrive, there amongst the mats of water hyacinths were small remnants of fragrant white lilies that were trying to grab the last bit of sunlight before succumbing to the water hyacinths aggressive nature.
"Water Hyacinths are not native to our area. It outcompetes our native vegetation. A certain area that may have been filled with lilies or an ecologically diverse patch of native aquatic plants, will be taken over in weeks or even days by the water hyacinths. They ruin the habitats, promotes mosquito growth and impacts both dissolved oxygen and turbidity," says Fair.
They explain that the area we were floating on had recently been treated for invasive plants. Mangus and Fair can view the tracks from their device. Since the waterlily is rooted in the soil, the lilies there will quickly produce new flowers and pads after the water hyacinth dies out, taking this area back from the invasives. The program helps them know the exact location in real-time that an applicator applies the designated herbicide.
"For a biologist going out surveying, sometimes, the effect of the herbicide takes days and even weeks for us to see,” says Fair. “Before this technology, when biologists went out to survey, collect data, and verify that the applications were working, we had a general idea of the treated areas. But now, with this program, we can pull it right up on the platform and see if the area was treated. With that information we can compile our survey data and direct our contractors better. It helps us to be more effective, save time and money."
What started out as a Sirens call to find a better way of conserving our environment and holding state and federal agencies accountable for their invasive aquatic plant management was just a seed to find an innovative solution.
The solution is a program comprised of a device and a platform that meets the requirements of the unforgiving weather conditions on Lake Okeechobee, the whizzing and whirling of the airboats it needs to fit on, and an accurate, user-friendly platform.
Dew, Fair and Mangus, know that the all possibilities of this program have yet to be explored and further developed. Now the team has the data, and the imagery needed to be transparent to the public. The team can give them the requested information in real-time: the when, where and how they are chemically and mechanically managing invasive aquatic plants.
In keeping with the promise of efficiency, efficacy, and accountability USACE, FWC, their partner agencies and contractors alike can strive to maintain clear waterways, keep our infrastructure safe, and conserve our native ecosystems.