Phragmites, you’ve been warned

Bloomfield Township residents named Riparians of the Year for work with invasive plants

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published June 12, 2018

 Mike West and Ron Cousineau, residents of Bloomfield Township, were honored recently for their work  to combat  phragmites.

Mike West and Ron Cousineau, residents of Bloomfield Township, were honored recently for their work to combat phragmites.

Photo provided by Bloomfield Township Community Relations Director Greg Kowalski

 Phragmites, which drive away native species in Michigan, are known for being hard to uproot.

Phragmites, which drive away native species in Michigan, are known for being hard to uproot.

Photo provided by Bloomfield Township Community Relations Director Greg Kowalski

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP — They hardly look scary — more like wispy cattails, growing tall in open spaces.

But when Mike West and Ron Cousineau saw the plants surrounding the lake near their property, they knew they had a problem.

Phragmites can grow up to 18 feet tall, and they spread like wildfire. They’re one of the most threatening invasive species in Michigan right now, and once they begin to grow, they’re nearly impossible to uproot, some say.

But West and Cousineau, longtime residents of Upper Long Lake in Bloomfield Township, were ready for the fight. They managed to develop a new system to eliminate phragmites, a method so successful that the Michigan Lake and Stream Associations named them Riparians of the Year.

“It was a complete surprise,” said Cousineau, a member of the associations for more than 20 years. “I see them give out that award every year, and I never thought I would’ve been listed as a candidate, let alone win it.”

The standard method of remediating phragmites, as outlined by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, is to burn the plants at the end of the season and follow up the following year with an herbicide when new growth appears.

But not many people were keen on the idea, since the township wouldn’t allow burning the plants and neighbors didn’t like the idea of toxic chemicals sprayed on their land. Or near it, for that matter.

“Spray can become airborne and go all over the place, and you can’t just spray once,” West said. “It was a dilemma.”

“My wife would be none too pleased if I used chemicals,” Cousineau said with a laugh.

It took some time, research, and trial and error before the duo developed their pattern of cutting phragmites just below the water level and at ground level during specific times of the year, when the water level changes. The constant cutting, they said, deprives the plants of nutrients and weakens them to the point of starvation and death. Cutting below the water level essentially drowns the plant.

Sounds simple, but phragmites are tough, and a hit with the weed wacker won’t do the trick. West said it’s a two-person process to cut down the plants, one doing the cutting with sturdy steel blades and the other directing the fall of the tall stalks. The process gets tougher in water and in soggy areas.

The trouble is worth it, they said. They started cutting the plants near their home in 2009, and within a couple of years, they saw a dramatic decrease in the number of phragmites. The native plants that had been forced out by the invasive species soon returned. The process was tried in Wolverine Lake too, with success.

So why isn’t their plan the standard for removing phragmites? Well, it’s a lot of work.

“There are companies that spray chemicals, but no one, to our knowledge, has a work crew to cut the invasive plant,” West said in an email. “It would be a great summer job for students.”

“We’re still fighting them on our lake in certain sites,” Cousineau said. “We’ve got a few spots about the size of a kitchen table, and that’s pretty manageable. That’s what we want people to know: When you first see them, here’s what you do. You’ll be able to take care of them in short order.”

To learn about their process, email West at mww1855@yahoo.com and Cousineau at rjcousineau@aol.com, and they can send a PowerPoint presentation. Homeowners associations can also inquire about live presentations.