Aquatic ecologist Mike Haberland wades into Newton Lake, grabs a stalk of spatterdock, and struggles to pull it out of the water.
"Holy cow," he says, pointing to the plant's knobby chunk of root. "I didn't think it would be so difficult."
A common local variety of water lily, the spatterdock is proliferating so ferociously that parts of the scenic Camden County lake are starting to look like a salad bar.
These bumper crops are merely a symptom of the nutrient-rich runoff and sediment plaguing similar man-made lakes in Moorestown, Oaklyn, and elsewhere in South Jersey, says Haberland, a county agent with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension.
"Newton Lake is like a Crock Pot full of nitrogen and phosphorus," he says as we conclude our visit to the once-lovely stretch of water between Bettlewood Avenue and the White Horse Pike in Oaklyn.
A floating lawn of native and invasive aquatic plants such as coon tail, curly leaf pond weed, green and blue-green algae, duckweed, and water meal discourages canoeing and kayaking. Or walking: The lake stinks.
Amid a similarly problematic profusion of vegetation in the Newton tributary called Peters Creek, Oaklyn is buying a $134,000 machine as a long-term investment to keep the waterway clear and dredged, says Mayor Robert Forbes.
The borough also plans to enter into a shared services agreement with Camden County to do similar work in Newton Lake. "It's a quality-of-life issue," Forbes says. "We need to do something immediately."
Meanwhile, in Moorestown, the spatterdock-filled upper portion of Strawbridge Lake is set to be cleared by a Hunterdon County firm called Princeton Hydro.
Mayor Victoria Napolitano says the township will spend about $80,000 to remove vegetation, test water, and develop a management plan for the Strawbridge watershed.
"The lake has been described as the jewel in the crown of Moorestown," says Napolitano, standing near a particularly weedy stretch of the upper lake along Haines Drive. "It's worth the investment."
The problem isn't just the vegetation but "what comes in" to a lake, notes John Nystedt of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.
"Lakes want to fill up," he notes. "It's a matter of taking care of the input."
Upstream from Newton Lake, the portion of the creek that winds through Sadler's Woods is a prime source of sediment.
Even worse are "two sewage overflows in Haddon Township and one in Collingswood" that end up in Newton during heavy rains, says Nystedt, a Haddon Township resident.
"There are bigger issues than just aesthetics," agrees Lois Giovacchini, president of the 100-strong Newton Creek Watershed Association.
"We're concerned about the quality of the water, which affects whether people can fish," the Oaklyn resident says, adding that the association is lobbying the Camden County freeholders to lead a "unified effort" among the 12 municipalities within the watershed.
"The most important thing is that we approach the leadership from a regional perspective," Giovacchini says.
Haberland, who studies spatterdocks, acknowledges being rather impressed by the tough, tenacious plants.
He cites a photograph from a 1930s history of the Camden County Park System that shows an enormous field of spatterdocks that existed before the lake.
He notes their redeeming qualities, such as taking phosphorous out of the water. And he's fascinated by their nemesis - a common water lily beetle whose voracious larvae cause the leaves to go spotty and brown before they die.
The plant population explosion "is part of the natural filling-in of the lake, but it's not practical and it's not going to happen," Haberland says.
That is, as long as communities realize that "a big fix all at one time" isn't possible.
"Every year, maintenance will have to be done," he says. "It's going to be a continual battle."
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