The phragmites plant is an invasive species found on Utah Lake’s shoreline. While there are some few native phragmites species on the East Coast, the majority of phragmites stands in the country are non-native. And as invasive species go, the phragmites are particularly well adapted at overrunning native plant species and generally crowding out pristine shoreline.
Sometime during the 19th century, non-native phragmites was accidentally introduced to American waterways. Compared to other shoreline plants, phragmites are really good at taking over habitat. You probably would recognize phragmites by its fluffy seed-bearing 15 ft stalks. Phragmites is able to spread through wind-blown seed as well as root based shoots called rhizomes similar to Aspen trees. This enables the plant to spread up to 20ft per year.
And spread phragmites did. Phragmites stands exist in and dominate most shoreline habitat in the country. Utah Lake, in particular, has 75 miles of shoreline. Most of which is inaccessible.
Risks of Phragmites
Like most invasive species, phragmites presents a number of risks to both the environment it invades and the human populations around them. So when considering phragmites removal, it is important to understand just what sort of risks they pose.
Lower Lake Levels
Phragmites is an incredibly thirsty plant. Compared to other native shoreline plants, phragmites takes up more than its fair share of water. Combine this with its virulent spreading across the shoreline and you get lower lake levels. Water levels on Utah Lake are already a fragile balancing act that the addition of the phragmites makes it even harder to have acceptable lake levels.
First and foremost, phragmites pose a fire hazard. Every late summer and fall, the reeds dry out and become dry as tinder. Fire can spread rapidly through them and can quickly threaten the rest of the property they are found on.
Loss of Habitat
Utah Lake is an important staging ground for migratory seabirds crossing the United States. Because of its brackish waters and marshy wetlands, both Utah Lake and the Great Salt Lake are critical habitats. There are many protected and preserved wetlands on both lakes in order to keep this unique habitat useful to these migratory birds. However, the invasion of phragmites threatens these bird populations through devastating their necessary habitat. These sea-birds, like pelicans, are too big to nest in among the phragmites. This stymies their populations and endangers their continued existence as a species.
As well, phragmites alters shoreline hydrology by growing in tightly packed stands. This is terrible habitat for young fish including the endangered June Sucker. In order for these fish to mature they need protected habitat of loosely organized shoreline plants. When these conditions exist, these young fish are able to control insect populations by feeding on brooding bugs. However, phragmites are so tightly packed that this necessary habitat is prevented. Critical fish populations like the June Sucker then have a harder time reaching maturity. Which leads right into the next risk phragmites poses.
The increase of mosquito populations. When they grow along the lake shoreline, phragmites can stagnate water flow which is thrilling to mosquitoes but problematic for landowners. For the most part, mosquitoes are more of a nuisance than a danger, but West Nile virus-carrying mosquitoes have been found in Utah. Having a mosquito breeding ground on your land is the last thing you want.
Loss of Native Plants
One of phragmites better evolutionary adaptations is its ability to severely crowd out native plants. This can throw an otherwise healthy lake shore ecosystem off balance. Yes, there are many animals that can live in and among the phragmites, like birds, snakes, and spiders, but those animals don’t necessarily need phragmites to thrive. As Utah Lake shoreline is restored, those animals can and will nest elsewhere. And beyond the wildlife, Utah Lake is a very large, complex ecosystem. The native plants found along the shoreline are an extremely necessary part of keeping the lake healthy over the coming decades.
Loss of Accessible Shoreline
As discussed above, phragmites grows in very tight stands. Not only does this restrict shoreline access for plants and animals, but it makes it impossible for humans to access great swaths beachfront. There are only 27 official access points. If a storm came up suddenly you’d have to make it into shore quick. But phragmites makes this next to impossible. Beyond this, fishers and birders can’t access some of the best locations due to the invasion of phragmites.
A more aesthetic issue phragmites brings to the table is that each reed can be 12-18 ft tall. This can ruin views of Utah Lake and those sunsets are downright magical. Plus, their leaves are razor sharp and can cut skin. This can be troublesome for bird watchers, fishers, and general explorers.
Because of these risks, the Utah Lake Commission, in partnership with other organizations like the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State lands, and Utah County make continual efforts to restore Utah Lake’s shoreline.
Lake shore Restoration
Because phragmites is such an aggressively invasive species, it requires an equally aggressive treatment to restore Utah Lake shoreline. This is done through aerial herbicidal treatment followed by giant crushers and mowers chopping up and stamping down the dead organic material for re-absorption into the ecosystem.
The herbicide used is called AquaNeat which is an herbicide specifically designed for use in aquatic systems. It works through being absorbed into the plant system through direct contact with foliage. Utah Lake shore treatment takes place late summer-early fall because this is when phragmites has those puffy blooming seed heads. During the spring/summer season, phragmites’ seeds are covered in a protective layer. Those protective layers burst open giving the phragmites their iconic hanging white tassel. When sprayed directly on those seed tassels and the rest of the plant, the herbicide is most effective. After a few days, treated phragmites should start to die.
The plant continues to degrade through the fall and into the winter. As stated above, because phragmites spread through its roots and rhizomes, simply spraying the reeds isn’t enough. That is why during the winter months, we use Marsh Masters pulling giant weed whackers to essentially crush and mow down the dead organic material. Then, spring runoff will submerge the crushed phragmites and will facilitate the natural decay of the plant.
Due to the tenacity of phragmites, there will be a certain percentage of regrowth in treated areas. However, this is why we plant to repeat the process for three years total. That means for three years, we will be spraying and crushing phragmites on the north end of Utah Lake. In our test areas, we have found that this triple wash, rinse, repeat style has lead to a 98+% elimination of phragmites. For an invasive species as virulent as phragmites, a three-year removal process is a nothing short of miraculous.
This is all part of the continual restoration and improvement efforts on Utah Lake. All of this is made possible by the collaborative efforts and funding power of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), Forestry, Fire & State Lands (FFSL), and Utah County public works staff, as well as the DWR Wetland Restoration Initiative grant, and Utah Department of Agriculture Invasive Species Mitigation grant.