Paddle with a Purpose: Water Chestnut Management in Upper Bucks County

Updated: Feb 5

The following article was written by Meghan Rogalus, Watershed Specialist with the Bucks County Conservation District and was originally included in the Spring 2020 edition of the "Tracking Invasive Species with Pennsylvania iMapInvasives" newsletter.


Pictured above: At the start of each day of 'Paddle with a Purpose', Meghan Rogalus shows volunteers distinguishing characteristics of water chestnut to help them identify the invasive plant in Lake Towhee. Photo provided by Meghan Rogalus.



Lake Towhee is a 50-acre impoundment at the center of a long-term Eurasian water chestnut (Trapa natans) management effort in Bucks County. The lake is the centerpiece of the 552-acre Lake Towhee County Park and outlets to Kimples Creek, which drains to the Tohickon Creek and Lake Nockamixon, Bucks County’s largest lake and focal point of Nockamixon State Park.


Eurasian water chestnut is an aquatic invasive plant that impacts lakes by quickly covering the water’s surface, forming dense mats that block sunlight. It also competes with native vegetation for space and nutrients and disrupts the aquatic food web and habitat structure. This plant dramatically impedes recreation because its dense mats clog boat motors and can make paddling difficult. Spiny seedpods pose hazards to swimmers’ feet and even boat trailer tires.


Because water chestnut is not native to the United States, our native wildlife cannot keep the population in check. The plant also spreads rapidly because it has multiple means of reproduction – it is an annual plant that primarily spreads by seed and also reproduces from small plant fragments. Once a population is established, water chestnut management requires a long-term effort. After plants flower annually in late June, they produce about 10-12 seedpods, each of which can remain viable on a lake bottom for up to 12 years!


Eurasian water chestnut was first documented on Lake Towhee in July of 2009. By that time, it had already spread to over half of the lake. Since August of 2009, the Bucks County Conservation District (BCCD) has coordinated an annual event branded ‘Paddle with a Purpose’ and partnered with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Nockamixon State Park, and Delaware Canal State Park.



Pictured above: Volunteers work from boats to pull water chestnut plants from Lake Towhee to prevent its spread to other locations by fragmentation. Credit: Ashlin Brooks



From 2010 on, the event has been timed between mid-June and mid-July to remove plants before the seeds mature. During the event, volunteers are educated on plant identification and impacts, and then paddle (in canoes or kayaks) or slowly motor to different sections of Lake Towhee to pull as much of the plant from the lake as possible. Some volunteers work with BCCD staff on shore to assist boaters with unloading their quarry. BCCD staff then haul the plant material to a pre-approved composting site.



Pictured above: Volunteers paddle back to shore with bags full of water chestnut where they are met with help to transfer the bags to a BCCD pick-up truck for transfer to an approved composting location. Credit: Amy Jewitt



This event started small with only about 10 participants, but has steadily grown in support to an event with over 75 annual participants. One key factor to the success and growth of the event was primarily the strength of the partnership between the county-level organizations and the state agencies. All were committed to preventing an unchecked spread of water chestnut to Lake Nockamixon.


Another major component was the loyal and consistent contribution of local volunteers who returned year after year to assist with the event and help spread the word. Volunteer recognition and appreciation, including a satisfying lunch after a hard half-day’s work, played a key role in developing this following.


One consistent limitation to the event’s capacity for more volunteers has been a limited number of boats available for volunteers who did not have their own. However, the recent addition of Delaware Canal State Park as a partner for ‘Paddle with a Purpose’ provided a significant boost in equipment capacity. Educators Katie Martens and Gabie Lent have brought a DCNR truck and trailer with kayaks, paddles, and PFDs for up to 20 volunteers at a time.


The iMapInvasives program has been instrumental in helping BCCD document the collaborative effort of volunteers and watershed partners in managing water chestnut. In particular, the ability to delineate ‘Searched Area’ and ‘Treatment Area’ polygons in the iMapInvasives database has given the BCCD the ability to document the extent of the area covered each year. In the two years that BCCD has delineated these areas in the online mapping platform, we’ve seen incremental progress in pushing the stand of water chestnut “uplake”.


BCCD has also been monitoring the Kimples Creek watershed and utilizing the iMapInvasives mobile app and the ‘Water Chestnut Chasers Challenge’ to document presence/absence of water chestnut in the drainage area up and downstream of Lake Towhee. We are grateful for the way the app supports our monitoring efforts in the field.



Pictured above: Screen capture from the iMapInvasives database showing Treatments and Searched Areas on Lake Towhee. This data depicts the efforts of BCCD's 'Paddle with a Purpose' for the past two years and is viewable to anyone that registers for a free iMapInvasives user account.



We find our volunteers have varying drives for returning year after year, but what all participants have in common is a deep love for the outdoors. Here are some testimonials from a few of our loyal, repeat community volunteers:


- “If you love the peacefulness of a day on the lake, surrounded by sounds of croaking frogs and views of gliding great blue herons, you’ll love participating in the annual water chestnut pull on Lake Towhee.” – Tom S.


- "This is an event we look forward to every year. We enjoy the outdoors as a family and as a 4-H leader and parent of a boy scout, helping the community and helping to restore the beauty of the lake is something we find very enjoyable. The group of people that come back every year are always so welcoming, so it is a pleasure to attend this event.” – Lorrianne D.


- “It was the gypsy moth infestations of the 1960s that taught me my first lesson about what invasives do to our environment; when our summertime forests looked more like winter and how hot it was those summers without the shade of the trees. Helping out against this lake-killing plant at Lake Towhee is just the latest chapter in a lifelong quest to make my corner of the world a little better.” – Mike M.



Pictured above: Volunteers are all smiles as they return to shore with two very full bags of water chestnut. Credit: Meghan Rogalus



Although we consider ‘Paddle with a Purpose’ a volunteer engagement and outreach success, until recently, the upper portion of Lake Towhee continued to have large stands of water chestnut intermingled with dense native vegetation (primarily spatterdock and water shield) that were largely untouched due to access difficulties for volunteers.


Thanks in large part to the documented long-term and ongoing commitment of volunteers and BCCD management and staff, BCCD was awarded a Growing Greener grant to build upon existing efforts and fund additional invasive species control and monitoring in the watershed in 2018. Targeted herbicide applications were initiated on the lake in 2019 and more will be completed in the 2020 season. This multi-pronged approach is critical to make a lasting impact on water chestnut in Lake Towhee and downstream in Lake Nockamixon. As with many group events in 2020, adjustments are being made in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, but volunteer support is as critical as ever to ensure all portions of Lake Towhee are being monitored and controlled.


For the 12th annual ‘Paddle with a Purpose’ event happening this year, BCCD will provide supplies needed by volunteers to collect water chestnut and deposit it in bags on the shoreline for BCCD staff to pick up and bring to the composting location. After receiving their supplies via mail or contactless delivery, volunteers can conduct safe, socially-distanced water chestnut pull(s) anytime in the window of July 1 through August 15.


Volunteers who participate must complete a waiver and provide their own boat, PFD and paddle. Please visit BCCD’s Facebook page or contact Meghan Rogalus, BCCD’s Watershed Specialist, at mrogalus@bucksccd.org to learn more about how to get involved.



















About the Author


Meghan Rogalus is the Watershed Specialist for the Bucks County Conservation District. Her areas of expertise include water quality, harmful algal blooms, watershed management, volunteer coordination, and grant administration.


Meghan has coordinated the annual ‘Paddle with a Purpose’ event at Lake Towhee since its inception. In her spare time, Meghan enjoys baking, reading, hiking and paddling. You can contact Meghan by email at mrogalus@bucksccd.org.

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The Pennsylvania iMapInvasives Program is a partnership of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program, and NatureServe.

Funding for Pennsylvania iMapInvasives is provided by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

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