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Article Published February 14, 2017

Phragmites Eradication Program for Connecticut River Estuary

Rita Christopher, Senior Correspondent

Well, there are lots of ways to support a marriage, but Laurie Snarski’s is perhaps unique. She has helped her husband Richard to destroy invasive phragmites in the 10 acres he owns in the Lord Cove Marsh System in Lyme. The marsh lies opposite the riverfront in Essex.

“She’s even more passionate about it than I am,” Richard Snarski said.

Phragmites, an invasive species of tall, tough grass that grows in dense stands along the riverbank, crowds out both endangered native vegetation, as well as native animals. At heights of 15 to 18 feet, it also cuts off views of the water. Over the last 30 years, according to Richard Snarski, infestations of phragmites throughout the state have multiplied.

Laurie Snarski’s enthusiasm turned out to be about more than supporting a marriage—it became a quest to save an entire ecological system. The Snarskis’ work has been an important part of a coalition of environmental organizations that has initiated a program to destroy invasive phragmites in the Lord Cove Marsh System along the Connecticut River in Lyme. Although most of the land is now owned by the State of Connecticut, some portions still belong to private landowners.

The phragmites removal work, to be completed over a three-year period, will involve the cooperation of the United States Fish & Wildlife Service; the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP); the Nature Conservancy, which has contributed $16,000; and the Connecticut River Gateway Commission, which has donated $30,000 in matching funds to the project. The commission includes representatives from eight towns along the river: Essex, Deep River, Chester, Old Saybrook, Lyme, Old Lyme, East Haddam, and Haddam. In addition to government agencies, Habitat Services of Branford is also involved in the removal of the phragmites.

Richard Snarski reported that at recent Gateway Commission meeting representatives of both Essex and Chester made an inquiry about removing phragmites from sections of the riverfront in their areas.

Richard and Laurie Snarski and John Pritchard, president of the Lyme Land Conservation Trust and a member of the board of trustees of the Nature Conservancy in Connecticut, say the goal now to raise the money to access the Gateway Commission’s matching funds. Contributions by private citizens to the eradication project are being handled by the Lyme Land Conservation Trust.

The Lord Cove Marsh System, on the Lyme/Old-Lyme side of the Connecticut River, is opposite the riverfront in Essex. Technically, the marsh is made up of two areas, Ely Meadow and Lord Cove. According to Pritchard, the whole area is usually referred to as Lord Cove. The Nature Conservancy has identified the Connecticut River tidelands, including the Lord Cove area, among the Western Hemisphere’s 40 Last Great Places.

Lord Cove, some 400 acres in all, is overrun with phragmites, which has choked off 245 acres, 10 of which the Snarksis own themselves. Richard Snarski, a soil scientist and wetlands specialist, understands the figures from personal experience. He and Laurie Snarski have mapped the phragmites infestation for the entire marsh and on their own, have already begun an eradication program on the 10 acres of marshland in Lyme that they own.

Richard Snarski has tangled with phragmites since he was a child in Preston, working with his uncle who was a professional trapper, catching otter, muskrat beaver, and raccoon. Snarski himself paid his way as an undergraduate through the University of Connecticut with his earning from trapping.

“I didn’t like to trap in the phragmites,” he said. “They are so thick that I couldn’t walk through them.”

Phragmites propagates through underground root extensions and plant tentacles at the water surface. Uprooting the plants is not a recommended procedure, because in the process of disposal, the plants often take root in other areas. Eradication works most effectively when the reeds are cut down and then sprayed with insecticide.

An amphibious machine called a Marsh Master can skim over the top of the water, cutting down the plants as it goes. The chemicals used in the spraying process do not cause environmental damage. The goal is to have near 100 percent eradication in a three-year period. Just to hedge bets a bit, Richard Snarski says he is aiming for a 99.9 percent success rate.

That three-year period, however, is not the end of the story. There have been past attempts to eradicate the plant at Lord Cove, but without constant monitoring, the phragmites will regrow. According to Pritchard, before the regrowth in Lord Cove, other more desirable plants had propagated on their own. “There were, hibiscus marsh mallows, cattails, beautiful species,” he said.

Richard Snarski vows that regrowth of phragmites will not overtake the three-year eradication program this time.

“In year four, it might only be me, but am going to be at this until I die,” he says. “Whenever patches pop up, I will go out with my backpack and sprayer.”

Tax-deductible contributions to the Phragmites Eradication Project can be made to the Lyme Land Conservation Trust. Indicate that the funds should be used exclusively for the Lord Cove Phragmites Eradication Project and send to: Lyme Land and Conservation Trust, Old Lyme, CT 06371.