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Groups work to plant native vegetation in Claytor Lake

Delton hydrilla1By CALVIN PYNN



For most groups involved with the use and preservation of Claytor Lake, the balance of life in the lake is the key priority.

Three years after a load of grass carp were put in the lake to combat an invasive hydrilla plant infestation, native vegetation is being reintroduced to the lake. The project was spearheaded this past spring by the Friends of Claytor Lake (FOCL), the 501(c)(3) non-profit group dedicated to balancing all issues in regards to the lake.

“Hydrilla was taking over the lake,” says Laura Walters, the president of FOCL. “It was causing problems for homeowners and lake users.”

Hydrilla is an invasive, vine-like aquatic plant similar to kudzu, which can grow up to 20 feet under water at an alarmingly quick rate. Before the grass carp were introduced to Claytor Lake to eat the hydrilla, it had overtaken more than 400 acres of the lake when it was first documented.

As the long, underwater vines created suffocating canopies, most of the competing native plants were overgrown. Now that the invasive population is under control, Walters says FOCL has worked to bring those plants back to the lake, mainly focusing on wild celery and water willow – the lake’s two primary plants.

“The water willow and celery were pretty much nonexistent when the hydrilla was rampant,” Walters recalls. “If it’s not controlled, it can take all the oxygen out of the water, which eventually kills the fish and everything else in it.”

That kind of infestation is bad news for the rest of the lake as well, causing red algae blooms, which can continue to literally choke the life out of the lake. As a fast growing plant, hydrilla cannot be completely eradicated.

It can, however, be controlled, Walters says. That’s why in 2011, FOCL worked with Pulaski County and Appalachian Electric Power to fight the spread by biological means instead of spraying chemicals to knock back the hydrilla.

The $7,000 project to reintroduce the native vegetation put plant cages in two coves of the lake. At this point, the group is waiting for the plants to grow, and continuing to study the hydrilla.

According to John Copeland, a biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Claytor Lake’s unique depth was a strong contributing factor to the hydrilla’s spread.

“These are shallow water plants, but Claytor Lake does not have an abundance of shallow water habitats,” Copeland explains. “It’s basically a mountain reservoir.”

Local bass anglers have taken an interest in the lake’s vegetation as well. As all life in the lake is in direct cooperation, the plant life in Claytor Lake can dictate the size and amount of fish populating it.

A group of fishermen in the area began circulating a petition last week to bring back the vegetation that feeds their yield. According to Walters, some of the local fisherman have voiced their desire to bring hydrilla back to the lake to help enhance the population they fish.

“The anglers are all about fishing,” Walters says. “They want larger catches, and the fishermen equate having hydrilla to having better bass fishing in particular, and larger weights for their tournaments.”

This caused some confusion on the “Claytor Lake Fishing Group” Facebook page, where the petition was advertised. Although Walters says some fishermen have wanted the hydrilla population to grow back, the real intention of the petition is to bring native grass back to the lake, as specified by Virginia State Bass Conservation Director Joan Blankenship.

“There are some that think that hydrilla is the answer to everything, but you can’t control it,” Blankenship says. “Fishermen are in no position to reintroduce hydrilla to the lake. It’s an invasive species, and no responsible angler would do that.”

As the name suggests, native grass grows naturally in Claytor Lake, like the wild celery and water willow. The Bassmasters Association, of which Blankenship is a part, is currently working on a letter of support to help fund their replanting of that native grass.

“We are all working very hard to put the right kind of grass back in the lake,” Blankenship says.

While the studies continue, Walters said the native vegetation is slowly but steadily regaining its place in the Claytor Lake now that the hydrilla is being significantly reduced.

“It’s gonna take time for the beds to come back, we’re seeing a lot of water celery throughout the lake, all the way from the Allisonia boat ramp to the dam.”

FOCL is currently drafting a new grant to reintroduce similar native vegetation into Claytor Lake. For more information about the group, visit www.focl.org, call 540-395-3625 or email info@focl.org.



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