County Battles Water Chestnuts

OSWEGO, NY – Oswego County will spend approximately $60,000 to weed out a problem that could devastate much of its tourism industry.

Legislator Barb Brown looks over a piece of a water chestnut plant at Tuesday's committee meeting.
Legislator Barb Brown looks over a piece of a water chestnut plant at Tuesday's committee meeting.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the county’s Economic Development and Planning Committee, Richard Drosse, a member of the Tourism Advisory Council (Minetto) and the Environmental Management Council, briefed members on the water chestnut invasion.

He and his wife, Naneen, have paddled and explored the Oswego River for close to 40 years.

“Over this period of time, we have seen changes in the river, both good and bad,” he said. “About 10 to 12 years ago, a waterborne invasive plant (the Chinese Water Chestnut) was identified in the Oswego River and connecting rivers.”

Since then, it has proliferated to the extent that it has filled and blocked many of the side areas and channels along the river.

Chemically controlling the advance of the invasive species in the river would cost about $60,000 annually, the legislators were informed.

A view of the eastside along Old Route 57, south of Seneca Hill. That's a marker buoy on the right background and a jet ski in the left background.
A view of the eastside along Old Route 57, south of Seneca Hill. That's a marker buoy on the right background and a jet ski in the left background.

In 2008, close to 200 acres of the plant were measured and identified in the length of the Oswego River.

“Along the canal, in just the past two years, the historic Battle Island area has become so filled in that boats (fishing boats, canoes and kayaks) are unable to travel through this area (not the canal itself),” Drosse said.

A couple of years ago, Fort Ontario staged a recreation of the battle at Battle Island using the type of wooded boats that they used at the time.

“If you go there this year, it is totally impassable in the same place,” he said.

That area has been a popular spot for fishing and other recreational use, he added.

Many other areas, including the historic old locks of the river have suffered similar fates, he continued.

The water chestnut has recently been found in the mouth of the Salmon River, where it joins with Lake Ontario, Drosse noted.

Floating leaves are triangular to rhombic in shape, one to two inches long, and have sharp pointed teeth on the margins.

They are arranged in a broad rosette that sits on the water surface.

The drifting rosettes have also caused clogging problems with the water intakes of the canal locks and other water intakes along the canal, Drosse told the committee.

In 2007 and 2008, the Oswego County Soil and Water Conservation District has applied a topical herbicide, with approval from the DEC, to several areas.

Because of the loss of state funding and budget constraints, the program to eradicate and control water chestnuts hasn’t continued, Drosse pointed out.

The waterway around Battle Island is becoming clogged with water chestnuts.
The waterway around Battle Island is becoming clogged with water chestnuts.

“They are taking over and changing the habitat of the river where they are existing,” he said.

Tourism is a significant part of the county’s revenues, with fishermen and boaters being major contributors, he said.

Environmentally and economically, the protection of the river/canal is important to the protection of Lake Ontario and other connected bodies of water, according to Drosse.

“Areas in Central New York and elsewhere are receiving stimulus money for various projects. What is needed is a comprehensive, proactive approach in order to eradicate and stop the spread of the water chestnut. It’s just snowballing,” Drosse told the committee. “Whether it is federal, state or local county government, help is needed to manage and eradicate this invasive species.”

Committee chair Morris Sorbello suggested creating a small task force to look into the problem and report back with suggestions on how to fight the plant, including searching for possible grant funding to aid the county.

The legislators also urged area fishermen and boaters to contact state representatives and alert them to the dire situation in hopes of gaining financial assistance.

Sixty thousand dollars is a lot of money, “but (water chestnuts) take away from fishing, from tourism … it’s a tiny drop in the bucket when you consider the impact this could have on our county,” said Legislator Louella LeClair.

Sorbello pointed out that riverfront property is taxed higher than most others and the water chestnut infestation makes it impossible for those property owners to use the river; and yet they continue to pay the higher taxes.

The county is losing sales tax revenue because of the problem, Legislator Art Ospelt added.

State representatives have come up with millions of dollars for other things. They should be able to come up with $60,000, he added.

A large amount of water chestnuts can be seen along Route 48 in Ox Creek and the Oswego River.
A large amount of water chestnuts can be seen along Route 48 in Ox Creek and the Oswego River.

“We’re going to have to seriously discuss this,” agreed Legislator Shawn Doyle. “It is getting worse.”

It would be devastating if water chestnuts continued to grow unimpeded.

“If we don’t make an investment in this now, we’re going to be in trouble later,” he said.

Ospelt said the county needs to earmark $60,000 in its budget for water chestnut eradication.

“I totally agree with Art. We’re going to have to seriously look at establishing a budget line for this. This is an ounce of prevention right now. Sixty thousand, compared to what it could be if it moves the rest of the way up the river, if it goes into Sandy Pond, if it goes to the Salmon River anymore … If we don’t nip this now it is going to undermine our entire property values on the waterfront and destroy tourism for fishing,” Doyle said.

The committee agreed to recommend the county set aside $60,000 in the budget for the project; and to search for outside funding sources as well.

About Water Chestnuts

The submerged leaves are alternate and coarsely feather-like, growing up to six inches in length.

Water Chestnut plant
Water Chestnut plant

Tiny white flowers emerge from the center of the rosettes and produce large (about one inch) hard, horned fruits.

Fruits ripen in about a month and soon sink to the bottom.

Most fruits germinate within the first two years, although a few may wait up to 12 years.

One seed can give rise to 10 to 15 rosettes, and each rosette may produce as many as 20 seeds. With high rates of germination, growth can be explosive.

Decomposition of the large volume of plants may also contribute to lower levels of dissolved oxygen in shallower waters.

Low levels of oxygen adversely affect the natural inhabitants of these waters, creating additional problems.

Previously, control of the plant was attempted by the Oswego County Soil and Water Conservation District with a weed harvester used to cut the surface pads before the nuts were ready to split open, killing the plant.

Also, volunteer groups have done early-season hand-pulling of the plant where small quantities were forming.


  1. somebody told me when we were talking about lake neantwanta that the city of fulton had someone that wanted to harvest plants growing in the lake a few years ago and that fulton had wanted some of the money, so that enterprize never happened, is there any truth to that, i don’t know who talks for the city of fulton, but i believe that that question does indeed deserve an answer.

  2. I think years ago Fred Martin wanted to do something to rid the lake of this problem.He was willing to do it with his own money.He once told me that fighting with the DEC proved to much so he could not do it.There have been lots of money spent to try and find a way to clean up the lake,but as long as the DEC puts their 2 cents in it,it will never happen.That lake use to be beautiful and now you can’t even take your dog over there to swim,what a shame.
    They should get Tannery Creek opened up and then open the 12 or 13 springs in the lake to get the water moving.I know talk is cheap but to sit on their butts and do nothing is a shame.

  3. This problem is getting out of hand. If this is not addressed in the next few years the cost will only continue to rise. The article mentions tourism, what about the home values? Why would you pay a premium to live on the river when it is not accessible for a majority of the year?

    If you do not think there is a real problem here jump in a boat and travel from Fulton to Phoenix!

    (Legislator Morris Sorbello, committee chair, did mention that aspect)

Comments are closed.