Linda Anderson, a director of the Peninsula Paddlers Kayak Club, shows off the identifiable characteristics of a European water chestnut plant and root system she has just removed from the Welland River. JOHN SWART

Ten minutes into Colin Casson’s short presentation, thoughts of latent environmental intrigue and a pending battle to defend the very existence of the Welland River flashed through my mind. This was more exciting than War of the Worlds, Mars Attacks, or any James Bond thriller.

Casson was throwing around phrases like “eyes on the water,” “total eradication is a possibility,” “Hit Squad Program,” “invasive species in Niagara.”

He emphasized his concern by twice repeating, “The seeds on this bugger are terrible!” securing a PG-13 rating for his briefing and bringing the horror of The Day of the Triffids to life.

What could be more thrilling than joining the not-so-covert action coordinated by the Invasive Species Centre (ISC) to rid the Welland River, and perhaps its complete watershed, of the European water chestnut (EWC), a recently discovered and potentially devastating aquatic invader?

Hyperbole aside, in a world where environmental action consistently takes a back seat to political gamesmanship and business lobbying, a world in which most of us feel powerless to be heard or find a way to have an impact, the opportunity for hands-on education about the EWC and how we might, as individuals, assist in stopping its spread or eradicating it in Niagara is truly unique. It was obvious that for the kids in attendance, and the young people on the ISC team, this event was important.

The event was the first of two “Paddle with a Purpose Tours” organized by the ISC, with support from the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority and the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters. This event, and a similar one scheduled for Saturday July 16, was held at E.C. Brown Conservation Area located on the Welland River, just west of Niagara Central Dorothy Rungeling Airport.

The Paddle with a Purpose Tour was conceived as a way to engage affected municipalities, community groups, shoreline property owners, and concerned individuals in the battle against EWC. The Niagara Falls Nature Club, Mayor Dave Bylsma of West Lincoln, Community Outreach Co-ordinator Kerry Royer from the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, a Wellandport landowner, the Peninsula Paddlers, and others were in attendance.

Late in 2021, Karen Alexander, Invasive Species Policy Coordinator for ISC, reached out to the Peninsula Paddlers Kayaking Club with early details of ISC’s Rapid Response Program to remove EWC from the Welland River. Our club frequently paddles various sections of the Welland River and many other smaller creeks and waterways throughout Niagara and beyond. We agreed to assist by becoming “eyes on the water.” By learning about the appearance and habitat of EWC, club members could relay information on new sightings, and hopefully in the future confirm the continued absence of any new growth where the ISC staff had previously removed infestations.

As Casson, Policy and Program Development Manager for ISC, began his information presentation, he explained the good fortune of having the plant discovered and reported to the EDDMaps reporting system in 2020 by two recreational paddlers. Casson speculated that the plant may have been in the river for a number of years, but that by ISC standards, these were still early days in its onslaught. He believes there is a realistic possibility to eradicate it.

“If ever there was a plant that we could eradicate and have a positive outcome on, I really do think this is it.”

Casson and his crew had samples of the plant in buckets for examination before the group hit the water. He pointed out its unique fan-shaped, glossy green leaf with razor-like serrated edges, which makes it easy to distinguish from native yellow and white lilly pads which also float on the river. He showed the small buoyancy sack that allows EWC to float, and circulated a seed with its hard shell and extremely spiky barbs which are capable of piercing light-soled sandals and water shoes if stepped upon. These barbs are of little concern in the murky mud of the Welland River, but in the St Lawrence River near Kingston, where EWC is proliferating on public beaches, it is a genuine safety and economic concern because it is driving people away from the waterfront.

If ever there was a plant that we could eradicate and have a positive outcome on, I really do think this is it

We launched our various boats and paddled west for a half kilometre to a large patch of EWC located along the south shore of the river. Casson explained how to identify the plant, and repeated the options available for reporting sightings to the ISC.

Prior to launching, Casson had explained that government regulations are in place to manage prevention and response planning for EWC. European water chestnut is a regulated plant under the 2015 Invasive Species Act in Ontario, meaning that its use (in decorative water gardens for example), removal, transportation, and disposal are all controlled by specific regulations.

EWC is an annual plant that reproduces by self-seeding. Late in its reproductive cycle, sometime after seed production begins in July, removing and transporting the plant without proper caution and equipment may actually increase its spread if seeds become detached. Likewise, disposal of the plant too close to a water body, or in a water run-off area, may cause seeds to be flushed back into an environment where it can re-establish.

Only authorized persons, including territorially based Aboriginal communities, not-for-profit corporations, municipalities, conservation employees, and waterfront property owners (with restrictions) can remove the plants.

For this reason, part of the on-water portion of the event was dedicated to showing those interested how to properly remove the plant. Reaching deep into the water and grasping the plant’s stalk by wrapping your hand and arm around it, pulling gently with side-to-side motion to free the roots from the muck, inserting your paddle or a rake near the plant roots to loosen them, and other tips were shared to make sure that the complete plant and root body would be successfully harvested during removal.

EWC plants removed during the demonstration were then placed in watertight tubs for transportation to remote dumping sites made available by the NPCA in their E. C. Brown and Chippawa Creek parks.

The ISC team will continue this necessary but physically difficult task throughout the summer. A component of their work uses Geographic Information System (GIS) and Global Positioning System (GPS) Mapping technology to record infestations they find, and locate plants reported by concerned citizens for removal or monitoring.

It was encouraging to note that during informal introductions Mayor Bylsma mentioned that he and Welland Mayor Frank Campion have applied for a joint delegation meeting with their provincial counterparts on the topic of EWC at the upcoming Association of Municipalities in Ontario (AMO) Conference in August to help further the fight against this invasive species.

I encourage you to attend the Saturday, July 16 Paddle with a Purpose Tour, happening from 10 AM to 1 PM at E. C. Brown Conservation Area. Consider taking your kids and grandkids. The event will be an interesting and worthwhile opportunity for them to understand how they can have a positive impact on their environment, and one that offers measurable results they can follow up on over the next few years. There is enough hands-on information in the land-based portion of the event to make a visit worthwhile even without a canoe, kayak, or paddleboard, although getting on the water makes it even more fun. In either case, they will be able to identify EWC infestations, either from the water or shore, and report them.

The folks at ISC suggest that you contact them before personally removing any plants you might find just to ensure that you understand proper removal, transportation and disposal protocols.

Here are links to more information about the European Water Chestnut, the Invasive Species Centre, and the Invasive Species Act. Invasive Species Centre website: https://www.invasivespeciescentre.ca/

Invasive Species Regulations information: https://bit.ly/3IHGdR7