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Sturgeon Bay Prepares for Another Year of Aquatic-Plant Management

The ability to manage the growth of aquatic plants this summer in Sturgeon Bay waters could depend on the number of seasonal employees the city is able to hire to do the work at $15 per hour.

The city’s Harbor Commission discussed the issue for about an hour April 21, when Mary Gansberg, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) water-resources biologist; and two residents from along Memorial Drive, where the weed growth is among the most problematic in the city, were also on hand.

“The shortage of employees is an issue,” said Harbor Commission chair Gary Nault. “If we could get any help here today – if you know somebody who would like to have a nice summer job riding around on a weed cutter for a $15-an-hour wage – we are certainly taking applications because at this time, we only have two. If we have four machines and could get all four in the water, our product will be better.”

Nault said the city budgeted this year for the part-time workers at $15 an hour – an increase of $1.50 – and if the city is unable to attract enough workers at that wage level, it could be addressed this fall for next year’s budget.

Nault said the city has an interest in managing aquatic-plant growth in the bay because “everybody who drives by the water [or] spends time on the water deserves to have water that’s able to be used and not plugged full of weeds.”

“Just because you don’t live on the water doesn’t mean when you drive down Memorial Drive or across the bridge, you want to see our water being choked up by weeds,” he said.

Nault said the city has four marinas with a lot of yachts and people spending their summers on the boats. The water level in the bay is down a foot from what it was last year, and he predicted there will be more problems with weed growth.

Runoff from fertilizers used for lawns contributes to aquatic-plant growth. 

“We generate some of this problem ourselves,” Nault said. “There’s no doubt about that. I like my lawn green as well. I’ve got a storm sewer that it runs into.”

Chemical Weed Treatments

The city applies for a DNR permit every five years to harvest weeds, and once a year for chemical treatment. This year’s permit authorizes a single herbicide treatment for 44.35 acres of aquatic plants. 

A site map of the treatment areas shows seven spots along the East Waterfront shoreline and 15 sites on the West Waterfront. The majority of the chemical-treatment sites on both sides are marina locations. 

The city may treat only once per season for navigational purposes, with no follow-up treatment allowed without DNR approval. Prior to treatment, the city sends a letter to property owners who are close to the treatment area, puts a public notice in the newspaper and installs signs along the shorelines and at the marinas where the treatments will occur.

Mary Gansberg, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources water-resources biologist, speaks April 21 before Sturgeon Bay’s Harbor
Commission about managing aquatic weeds in the Bay of Sturgeon Bay. Photo by Kevin Boneske.

Gansberg said the DNR recommends people don’t swim or go into the water for at least 24 hours afterward in an area where aquatic plants are sprayed.

“You throw herbicides into the water, and then you throw your kids in the water, it’s a little scary,” she said.

The herbicides that can be used to treat Sturgeon Bay’s aquatic weeds are limited because the currents in the bay are volatile, and the chemical needs adequate contact time with the plants. Sonar can’t be used because it needs a 60-day contact time, for example, but Diquat, which needs at least four hours, is now being used in portions of the bay, Gansberg said.

Weeds are not harvested at all in certain places such as the bay by Big Creek, which is designated a protected area to preserve the prime habitat for fish spawning. 

“It’s kind of a balancing act because we’re trying to protect the resource, restore the native aquatic-plant community, provide navigation and recreational uses, and provide a resource for the public to use,” Gansberg said.

Residents’ Concerns

Municipal Services Director Mike Barker said Ryan Londo, the city’s seasonal harbormaster, will be handling matters related to the aquatic plants.

“He will be taking the phone calls this year instead of me,” Barker said of Londo.

Londo said the city could send someone out in response to a call about the weeds getting bad in a portion of the bay.

“We try to make everyone as happy as we can,” he said.

In the city’s annual seaweed-harvesting report submitted to the DNR for 2021, Londo said 371 harvester loads of seaweeds were hauled out of the bay and marinas, which was 273 more loads than in 2020, and the second-most loads since he began working for the city in 2013, when 407 loads were hauled out.

Next to snowplowing, cutting weeds in the bay generates the largest number of calls to city officials, Nault said.

“Positive suggestions, comments and so forth will help us” to improve the harvesting operations, Nault said. 

Ryan Londo, Sturgeon Bay’s seasonal harbormaster, speaks April 21 before the city’s Harbor Commission. Photo by Kevin Boneske.

Sturgeon Bay resident John Wiese said he witnesses the weed harvesting from his Memorial Drive home and thinks there’s room for improvement with how the weed harvesters handle the operation and equipment. He suggested the city contract the water-weed management to a professional firm, but Nault said companies no longer offer that kind of service.

“The closest one I saw was way down in the southern part of our country, and they are definitely not going to come up here,” he said. “It wouldn’t be profitable.”

Doing it themselves allows city workers to respond to weed growth and residents’ concerns as they arise – something that a contract company wouldn’t be able to do, Nault added.

“We do have that control,” he said.

One way they could improve the operation is by installing a GPS on the harvesting equipment.

“It leaves a trail of where you’ve been,” Nault said. “It’s going to make sure [the operator is] going in a straight line, going in the right direction.”

Weed-Management Funding

Though the city spends about $100,000 annually on the aquatic plant management program, City Administrator Josh VanLieshout said slightly more than half of that amount is recovered by charging marinas for spraying and harvesting weeds.

“The cost of the program is about $100,000 a year; the city earns about $53,000 back for charges to the marinas; and then the balance is borne through the general fund – just through the general budget,” he said. “Those [general fund] revenues are comprised of property taxes and also other charges.”

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