Photo by Caitlin Abrams
This is the legend of the milfoil murder of Lake Minnetonka: Once there was a young man, prime of life, innocent and vital, whose soccer ball went into a patch of milfoil on a summer’s day. He dove in after it and he never came back. Though the cause of the tragic drowning was ultimately unknown, some blamed milfoil.
Chip Welling, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ aquatic invasive species management coordinator, believes the milfoil theory is “part of a story told to serve some other purpose.” Another purpose like getting the point across: People around here really hate milfoil, or rather, invasive Eurasian Water Milfoil (myriophyllum spicatum), which is not the same thing as innocent local slow-growing Northern Milfoil (myriophyllum exalbescens), but is so alarming that it’s taken over the native milfoil’s name.
Josh Leddy, who fights milfoil for a living, has heard the milfoil murder story plenty of times, and like Welling, he believes that even if the tale isn’t factually true, it yields an emotional truth. After all, milfoil is a killer of our beloved lakes and native wildlife. And then there’s the simple fact that it’s really, really nasty. “It’s super gross,” Leddy says. “Slimy. Disgusting.” With that he shudders, as if he hasn’t been literally underwater and submerged in the stuff for years. Leddy is 32 and as muscular as an otter, with close-cropped brown hair and deep brown eyes. He spends summers in ways an otter might recognize: diving deep into Lake Minnetonka (and other area lakes) to hand-pull invasive milfoil out by the roots, gathering it to his chest, pulling another bunch, and, when his arms are full, carrying it to the water’s surface to load on to floating mats. These mats are eventually pulled onto trucks emblazoned with his company’s name, Life’s A Beach, which he founded in 2004. Once the milfoil is loaded, he takes it inland and turns it into compost.
More than 300 homeowners and businesses with lakeshore on Lake Minnetonka—including iconic properties like Lord Fletcher’s—pay Leddy to pull their milfoil on a weekly or seasonal basis because, let’s recap, milfoil’s gross. “It’s slimy, it doesn’t feel good to be in it. It’s a heat pile,” Leddy explains. “The leaves trap water, and bacteria grow in that warm water. In a really thick patch of milfoil, it will be 10 or 15 degrees warmer than it is underneath, and that trapped water can smell gross. Underneath the milfoil is even worse. It’s a desert. No light gets through, so no other plants grow, there’s no fish under it.”
Milfoil: the devil’s mullet—swamp up top, desert down below. If it’s not murdering people, it’s without question murdering native species. “I tell people, ‘If you had some weed growing in your yard that was hurting wildlife, you’d see animals suffering and you’d do something about it,’” Leddy says. “But because the animals that are suffering are under the water where we can’t see them, we just let them suffer.”
Leddy lives and works out of a small house with a big dock on a spit of land separating two bits of Lake Minnetonka, Black Lake and Spring Park Bay, and he leads a life entirely in the shadow of milfoil. There’s his lake weed removal business, one of a few that have sprung up in the area recently, as evidence mounts that hand-pulling is both wildly more effective and drastically cheaper than poisoning lake plants. There’s his service on various volunteer lake groups, such as the Lake Minnetonka Association. And then there’s milfoil all over the next stage of his life. Leddy has been dragging the milfoil he harvests to different farms, which are storing the invasives for him while it turns to compost that he plans on using to fertilize the hops for his forthcoming brewery, Back Channel Brewing Collective. In addition to making beer, Leddy hopes Back Channel will raise awareness about invasive aquatic species. (There will be no invasive species in the beer itself, unlike Excelsior Brewing’s Milfoil Lakehouse Saison, a beer made with a sprinkle of milfoil in the brewing process.)
When Back Channel opens, Leddy pictures it giving the freshwater side of beer a spotlight. He imagines “the ultimate brewery tour. You jump on a pontoon, we go out and grab some lake weeds and pull them up. That’s how you can start to educate people. There is no way to poison ourselves out of this mess. Treatments just put poison in the water and make treatment-resistant milfoil. We’re just lazy. Good old-fashioned hard work is the only thing that we can do.
“When you pull out the milfoil, fish come in and breed in the area. Local species come in and take its place. People brush it off, they think someone else will take care of [invasive species] down the road, but actually that is not happening. Nobody’s really doing anything else, so we have to do it. How are we going to get this message out?” On a pontoon with beer, obviously.
It’s interesting to consider that Leddy is 32, because you could choose to see his and milfoil’s life as springing from the same origin point some 30 years ago, opposite forces, each pulling inexorably in a massive tug of war. He grew up on Schmidt Lake in Plymouth, and his childhood was spent in the context of metro-area lakes falling to milfoil, a slimy invasive string of dominos. When he was a teenager, he came to admire the enormous glory of Lake Minnetonka, and soon vowed to dedicate his life to restoring it as well as he could to the magnificence it must have possessed in the days before his birth.
If you were in Minnesota in the late 1980s and the 1990s, you likely remember the alarm that the arrival of the plant caused, popping to the top of lakes in a singularly repulsive way: It starts from a lake-floor rootball, shooting up a single rope of multi-branching feathery leaves. When it gets toward the surface, it branches in every direction, effectively creating a structure like an umbrella. Where did it come before it got here? No one knows precisely, but the National and Oceanic Atmospheric Administration says it somehow leapt from aquariums to freshwater, probably in the 1970s, either because someone planted it, or because someone dumped an aquarium into fresh water. Then, to get into Minnesota’s landlocked lakes, there was probably a Typhoid Mary, or a few of them—nasty disease-covered boats, traveling to Minnesota from points east. These boats likely brought a fragment of weed on their hulls or trailers, or living milfoil in their bilge water or bait wells.
What happened next is not speculation: By the time anyone noticed it, in the fall of 1987, milfoil was well established in Lake Minnetonka, and by the following spring’s ice thaw, it was found in about 10 Twin Cities lakes and has spread by 10 to 15 lakes each year since then.
As it turns out, the Twin Cities is the Goldilocks zone for milfoil, offering the invasive a little band of perfect habitat—lakes with just the right amount of water clarity and lake-bottom fertility—that stretches from Minneapolis and St. Paul to our nearest northern recreation areas, roughly around Brainerd. Raymond Newman, a professor specializing in aquatic ecology at the University of Minnesota, estimates that milfoil is in more than 300 Twin Cities area lakes and other bodies of water now. If you thought that those little DNR shacks on the edges of lakes Minnetonka, Harriet, and Calhoun are there to protect Minnetonka, Harriet and Calhoun from milfoil-tainted visiting boats—not exactly. They’re mainly there to protect the more virginal outstate lakes, which, if a sexually transmitted disease analogy is to be used, is unpleasant to think about.
Unpleasantness aside, we in the Twin Cities may be entering a watershed moment—ba-dum-cha!—for milfoil control. The invasive has been much studied in the last 30 years, and we now know that the pesticide treatments used to mitigate milfoil are highly ineffective. The DNR, which regulates the use of such herbicides, has discovered that the net effect of years of poisoning is temporary control, followed by the emergence of hybrids resistant to weedkiller. But these poisons look to be on their way out. This year, the DNR introduced a tougher strategy to combat the invasives transmission: Boats must be clean, drained, and unplugged when moving between bodies of water, and unused bait must be dumped in the trash and not in the water. Violators of this protocol will be fined and must take a class that is the invasive species version of drunk-driving school.
Various groups have also studied biological controls, the most promising of which is a native Minnesotan aquatic bug called a milfoil weevil, which invasive milfoil can’t tolerate the way local milfoil can. The problem with the milfoil weevil is that it’s a favored food of sunfish, and the human habit of keeping big sunnies and tossing back the little guys leads to an overpopulation of small, hungry sunnies that eat all the weevils. If you’re a fisher who wants to fight milfoil in city lakes, keep the medium-sized sunnies and toss back the big guys who will eat some of the medium sunnies, thus taking pressure off the native weevil. The other thing city dwellers can do that potentially could help tamp down milfoil is to keep leaves out of local gutters. When the leaves decay in drains that feed lakes, they release phosphorous that messes with the natural ecology of the lake.
If you’re really inspired, you could learn to identify invasive milfoil, get a DNR permit, and start diving for it yourself. Leddy says it makes great garden compost. “I wish every kid in the state of Minnesota would learn about aquatic invasives,” he says. “It’s as important as anything you learn in driver’s ed. I meet people all the time who say just crazy, crazy things like, ‘I just want to nuke the lake.’ That doesn’t work. It makes [invasives] come back stronger, and they’re the only things that do come back. People who say ‘nuke it’ are the people who are just preyed on by pesticide sales guys.” Leddy says pesticide pushers charge an arm and a leg, and then, when the poisons don’t work, they conveniently blame property owners for not springing for equally expensive follow-up treatments.
To combat the nukers, Leddy spends his summers pulling out ropy trees of invasive milfoil. You may see him this summer on Lake Minnetonka, arms full of green water weeds as he plots the overthrow of ineffective milfoil combat, and imagines a world where we compost our invading enemies and drink the fruits of their downfall by the pint. Milfoil may not have murdered any Minnesotans specifically, but if we’re lucky, it will have killed our complacency around watery invaders.