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Published: Sunday, 8/12/2012

It's man against weed in area lakes

BY MARY ALICE POWELL
BLADE COLUMNIST

The locals may say they gather at the counter and at a few small tables at Tina's at Manitou Beach, Mich., for breakfast or lunch. And they eat daily from 6 a.m. until the goulash is gone in mid-afternoon.

But outside the pancakes and green tomato sandwiches and all the other victuals, it's conversation that is a big attraction. The cafe is small enough to watch Tina turning a mean omelet while her helper in the open space is doing dishes by hand.

But why watch them when you can join in on conversation with strangers? I took seat No. 4 at the counter. Two seats down, a guy named Gilly started a conversation with the breakfast customers at the other end of the counter.

Shy Miss Powell chime in?

Absolutely. And that's how I learned about -- or something about -- milfoil.

Everyone seemed to know what Gilly Gilhouse meant when he announced that they did 40 acres the day before and hoped to do as many that day. Everyone but me knew he was working on water with milfoil and not on land with corn and wheat.

Milfoil is an invasive weed that grows in lakes almost faster than folks like Mr. Gilhouse can destroy it. Devils Lake and Round Lake are the areas of concentration.

"If we let the milfoil go, it would eventually close the lake," Ray McGrath said. "As long as there is sunlight it continues to grow just like grass, even on top of the water."

A Rollin Township trustee, Mr. McGrath was having breakfast at Tina's counter. He explained that lakefront and back lot property owners who are believed to use the lake the most are assessed for work being done.

This is the fourth year for the project. According to Mr. McGrath, there are chemicals that kill the weed, but a group that was organized to study the problem voted not to put chemicals into the lake waters.

While the average person blames this summer's drought for dry lawns and wilting flowers, the low lake levels from lack of rain plague lake residents. When the lake water is low the weeds grow closer to the surface. The problem has been so severe this summer it has been impossible for some lake residents to maneuver their boats away from the docks and through the weeds.

Mr. McGrath said that the zebra mussels also had a part in the overgrowth of milfoil.

"The mussels cleared the water, but that let the sun in for the weeds to grow faster," he said.

Mr. Gilhouse and his team operate a 12,000-pound aquatic combine that cuts the milfoil as it moves across it. A conveyor belt takes the cut milfoil into a storage box and when it is filled, it is emptied into trucks on shore.

Milfoil is claimed to convert into nutrient-rich mulch that is used by farmers on crop fields and by landscapers in sod installations.

Similar machines are used in 80 countries, Mr. Gilhouse said. The cost of a new one is $500,000.

"My goal is to leave very few footprints in the lakes," he said in emphasizing that the machine is environmentally friendly because food grade vegetable oil is used in the hydraulic system and the engine is a three cylinder air-cooled diesel.

After the Devil Lake and Round Lakes jobs are completed, he will begin work at the Gallup Park canoe livery in Ann Arbor.

In the meantime 70,000 weevils are doing their thing in the battle. The weevils were released in Round Lake three weeks ago. Mr. McGrath explained that when the weevil eggs become larvae they tunnel through the milfoil stem. The process makes holes in the stems that eventually destroy them. And when one stem tumbles down, the plan is that others will fall.

If you want to know anything more about milfoil or weevils in the southern Michigan lake district, I guess you know where to go.

Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor.

Contact her at: mpowell@theblade.com



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