Aquatic plants give shelter to young fish

Annette Dotson, a park ranger for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assigned to the Richard B. Russell Lake, prepares water willows for planting. The native plants, provided by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, provide shelter for young bass, food for those fry and help prevent bank erosion. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Billy Birdwell)

Finding a quiet and safe place for a nursery tops the priorities for new parents, be they humans or fish. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state partners help fish in Savannah River reservoirs find those safe places for their young.

To make those safe places this summer, workers, student interns and volunteers have planted thousands of native aquatic plants in Richard B. Russell Lake and J. Strom Thurmond Lake on the upper Savannah River.

This joint effort between the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Corps’ Savannah District, provides needed shelter for fish to hatch and then hide from other fish trying to eat them. The plants also provide feeding areas for the fry.

The agencies bring pallets full of water willow and maiden cane to transplant into shallow water near the lakeshore. Water willow (Justicia americana) proves especially beneficial as it can spread naturally by root, rhizomes and seed.

“We’ve been very successful over the past few years in seeing water willow spread naturally from our planted areas into several other places,” James Sykes, Savannah District fisheries biologist, said. Water willow is native to the region.

“These plants provide great fish habitat for juvenile and adult fish and good erosion control,” Chris Nelson, a fisheries biologist for Georgia DNR in Social Circle, Georgia. The DNR effort is backed by a grant from Yamaha Motor Corporation, a manufacturer of outboard boat motors.

Workers from the state and from the Corps’ Russell Lake put out more than 18,000 plants in 2018 that started in the greenhouse and now cover several acres of shoreline at Russell Lake. A 2017 survey of the reservoir indicated the places best suited for the plants that would provide the most cover for the most fish.

“Anglers really love the plantings,” Nelson said. He explained bass go into the plantings to spawn and feed then move about outside the patches of willow, which makes for good fishing spots.

Crews from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plant hundreds of native water willows along the shore of Richard B. Russell Lake. Water willow provides shelter and food for newly hatched bass and other sport fish, and helps reduce shoreline erosion. The plantings are a joint effort between the Corps of Engineers and Georgia. (U.S. Army photo by Billy Birdwell)

The joint effort at Russell Lake led workers at Savannah District’s Thurmond Lake to begin a similar program. Without a dedicated greenhouse to start the willows, rangers fashioned an outdoor plant nursery. At this location near a campground for volunteer campground stewards, workers care for thousands of plants until mature enough to transplant into the reservoir.

David Quebedeaux, a park ranger at Thurmond Lake, manages the mini-nursery. He, other rangers and some dedicated volunteers prepare and install the plants along selected areas at the reservoir north of Augusta, Georgia.

“We set it up near our volunteer campground and asked them to assist us, which has been very successful,” Quebedeaux said.

Plants in both locations benefit the fish, giving them the necessary cover needed to grow. This in turn gives rise to a stronger fish population in both reservoirs.

“Nothing makes anglers happier than the tug of a nice fish on the end of the line,” Quebedeaux said.

In conjunction with planting water willows, Thurmond Lake has had an oxygen injection system in place since 2006. This system places pure oxygen into the reservoir about five miles above the Thurmond Dam.

It enhances the habitat by increasing the dissolved oxygen in the water which helps fish survive hot summers when oxygen naturally depletes but it also helps them thrive by allowing them to move away from the area near the dam where they risk being caught in a dwindling area of oxygen. (See Balancing the Basin post for June 27.) The Thurmond oxygen injection system also attracts anglers who know fish congregate near the system, Sykes explained.

The extra effort to increase native aquatic plants in the Savannah District reservoirs and oxygen injections give the sport fish in these reservoirs the kind of start in life needed to keep the Savannah District reservoirs rated among the best recreation areas in the Southeast, Sykes said.

~ Billy Birdwell, Corporate Communications Office

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The tale of hydrilla and the golden grass-eating carp

Once upon a time there was a terrible invasive weed-queen named Hydrilla who grew so fast she pushed out every other aquatic plant at J. Strom Thurmond Lake. With the help of her toxic underling, blue-green algae, the pair wreaked havoc on local waterfowl and birds of prey.

After a thorough study and survey, residents decided to introduce legions of sterile, grass-eating carp (combined with targeted herbicide treatments, of course) to combat Queen Hydrilla’s stranglehold on the ecosystem.

— — —

Although this covers the first 25 years of the story, the next chapter is just beginning.

I spoke with Ken Boyd, chief ranger for forest, fish and wildlife at J. Strom Thurmond Lake Project last week for an update on the reservoir’s Aquatic Plant Management Plan (APMP), which seeks to limit hydrilla’s impact.

Boyd said between October 2017 and March 2019, officials stocked Thurmond Lake with approximately 50,000 sterile, grass-eating carp in accordance with the APMP.

In addition, they applied herbicide in the fall of 2017 to about 200 acres of the lake in areas where bald eagle mortality had historically been an issue. Those areas included Bussey Point, Parksville and Cherokee day-use areas.

The following year, natural resources staff conducted surveys and determined that additional herbicide treatments were not necessary.

This fall, Boyd and his team will conduct another survey and a random sampling of areas around the lake to gauge the plan’s effectiveness.

“It’s like a gut check to see where we’re at,” said Chris Spiller, natural resources manager at Thurmond. Spiller said it typically takes about four to six years to see any real impact produced by the grass-eating carp.

A comprehensive, lake-wide survey is planned for 2022 to further assess hydrilla control levels and out-year plans, according to Boyd.

In addition to the carp and herbicide fronts, Thurmond has been aggressively bolstering its native aquatic plant nursery, which it started this past winter.

The nursery focuses on plants such as water willow and maiden cane, which can thrive in drought and flood conditions. Establishing strong populations of these native plants is essential to ensuring the health of growing fish and aids against erosion. Thurmond officials plan to plant about 2,000 water willows by September.

Additionally, Boyd said his staff is felling trees, and adding cable and deep water attractor refurbishments to encourage the fish populations in the lake.

He said they continue to monitor bald eagle populations around Thurmond Lake but it’s too early to link current mortality rates to grass-eating carp additions. However, he said he’s not aware of any bald eagle deaths since December 2017. There were four successful nest attempts at Thurmond Lake during the 2018 nesting season.

We will continue to provide updates on the Aquatic Plant Management Plan as information becomes available. Until then, we’re striving to ensure hydrilla and blue-green algae do not live happily ever after.

                                                                   — — —

In case you’re joining the story late, here is some additional background information on hydrilla and Thurmond Lake’s Aquatic Plant Management Plan.

Hydrilla is an invasive aquatic plant that has proliferated at Thurmond Lake since the 1990s. Hydrilla adversely impacts the ecosystem because it grows so quickly that it pushes out native aquatic plants. It has been said that hydrilla grows faster than any living thing.

Blue-green algae grows on hydrilla, and this algae produces a toxin. When coots and other waterfowl eat the hydrilla, the toxin causes them to become sick and develop avian vacuolar myelinopathy (AVM). These fowl then become easy prey for eagles and other birds of prey, which then also develop AVM.

AVM affects the bird’s brain, causing them to become disoriented, fatigued and eventually die. It is strongly associated with American bald eagle deaths, but also with owls, hawks, geese and ducks.

By 2013, Thurmond officials had documented 76 bald eagle deaths that were related to AVM. Corps officials along with Georgia and South Carolina DNRs and the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry conducted a comprehensive lake-wide survey in 2010 and 2015, combined with a public survey to gauge awareness and determine stakeholder sentiment for proceeding with a course of action against hydrilla.

The stakeholder’s survey report was released in 2013. More than 70 percent of respondents indicated they would support or were indifferent to stocking the lake with grass-eating carp. Almost 66 percent supported the removal of aquatic vegetation, even at the cost of reducing fish and waterfowl habitats.

Officials stocked grass-eating carp in October-November 2017 (17,725), April 2018 (23,040) and March 2019 (8,750).

Previous articles on this subject can be found here.

~ Jeremy S. Buddemeier, Corporate Communications Office

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Setting the stage

Well, there’s one thing you can say about July’s rainfall: it wasn’t June, but it also wasn’t May, either. (Or is that two things?) Continue reading

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There’s (no longer) an app for that

Community members have been experiencing issues recently with our Savannah Corps lake level app.

Some folks have mentioned that the app will no longer update (but could still access it), whereas others couldn’t even find it in the app store.

The bad news is that the app is likely going away. The good news is we arranged for a relatively simple work around by creating a mobile-size HTML page that works just like the app. Continue reading

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3 died at Corps lakes over July 4th weekend

Tanya Grant, park ranger at Hartwell Lake, encourages visitors to always wear life jackets while swimming or boating. Visitors can borrow life jackets through the Corps’ Life Jacket Loaner Program.

Over the Independence Day weekend three fatalities at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers supervised lakes could have been prevented with a simple piece of equipment: a life jacket. Continue reading

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Corps to study Augusta’s ‘training wall’

SAVANNAH, Ga. An underwater wall installed in the Savannah River in Augusta, Georgia, more than a century ago will be the subject of a just-funded study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District.

The so-called “training wall” in the Savannah River runs from just downstream of 8th Street and ends 1,800 feet downstream of Boathouse Community Center. Continue reading

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Study to examine effects of ‘re-bending’ Savannah River

Duck Cut is an example of a cutoff bend being disconnected at both ends, which affects the water quality of the Savannah River and the quantity of available aquatic habitats. A Savannah District team is developing a solution to restore some of the 46 bends put in the river for historical commercial navigation dating back to the late 1800s. (Photo: Google Earth)

SAVANNAH, Ga. — In the late 1800s the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and others cut through 46 bends in the Savannah River below Augusta to aid commercial navigation. Now the Corps wants to know how these “shortcuts” have impacted the river’s ecosystem and which ones make the best candidates for restoring. Continue reading

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Holding strong — all summer long?

The Savannah River Basin roared into summer last month.

Hartwell and Thurmond each collected 6.8 inches of rain in June – a full 2 and 3 inches above their averages, respectively. Russell pulled in a solid 5 inches compared to its 3.8-inch average. Continue reading

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Summer heat hits striped bass hard

Anthony Rabern (left) and Tony Anderson, biologist and technician with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, retrieve data tracking information from tagged fish in Lake Hartwell on the Georgia-South Carolina state line.

No one argues that summer heat in the South climbs well above the comfort level – for humans and animals. Continue reading

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June showers make up for May’s wilted flowers

You know that feeling when you take a sip of ice cold water and you can feel it go all the way down your esophagus? That was last week after the unbearably dry month of May.

It was so dry for the Savannah River Basin (“How dry was it?!”) that each of the sub-basins surpassed their monthly totals for May in just the first full weekend in June alone. Continue reading

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