QLIA Delegation Report on Eco-Harvester Demo

On Wednesday, July 12, four representatives of the Quiet Lakes Improvement Association traveled to the Chetek Chain of Lakes in Barron County to observe operation of a new mechanical weed puller/skimmer called Eco-Harvester. Vice-President and AIS Committee Chair Norm Bratteig, Secretary nominee Gail Nicholson, Director nominee Steve Fiala, and President nominee Dave Neuswanger received an excellent demonstration of this new technology from Bill Wells – Eco-Harvester coordinator for the Chetek Lakes Protection Association (CLPA).

CLPA’s need for Eco-Harvester is different from ours. Their main problem is floating duckweed, filamentous green algae, and windrowed fragments of coontail and other native plants that form dense mats of vegetative debris at the water’s surface, impeding navigation. For that purpose, CLPA uses Eco-Harvester strictly in the “skimmer” mode, which removes only floating plant debris from surface waters. QLIA’s need for Eco-Harvester is to selectively pull, uproot, and remove Hybrid Eurasian Water Milfoil (HEWM) from within beds of desirable native plants.

Our QLIA delegation was unable to observe Eco-Harvester in its “puller” mode at Chetek because water clarity was poor and there was an ever-present danger of stumps in the shallow waters of this flowage that could damage the rotating drum used to capture and pull any rooted aquatic plants. But the machine functioned flawlessly and efficiently as Bill Wells, accompanied by Norm Bratteig, skimmed the surface and filled the storage bin with surface plant debris. Onshore observers noted that Eco-Harvester produced no more noise on the water than a typical outboard motor operating at moderate speed.

According to Bill Wells, Eco-Harvester’s top speed when empty is 4-5 mph. With a full load of harvested plants, Eco-Harvester moves very slowly (1 mph if no headwind). CLPA is considering a transport barge to reduce travel time between harvest locations and boat landings where the plants are off-loaded into a dump trailer. But towing with a well-powered fishing boat can move a fully loaded Eco-Harvester at speeds up to 10 mph. This would be our preferred way to increase operational efficiency, but it would require the aid of another volunteer and boat during harvest operations.

Norm Bratteig was impressed with Eco-Harvester’s ease of operation as he accompanied Bill on a weed skimmer run. Only one operator is required onboard. Bill said the manufacturer offers training to anyone who would like to learn how to operate the machine safely and efficiently. Norm and Bill returned to the boat landing with a full load of plant debris after only 15 minutes of skimming.

Our QLIA delegation was impressed by the speed with which a full load of plant debris could be off-loaded into a dump trailer by Eco-Harvester’s efficient conveyor system (one minute). We noted that whoever volunteers to receive the loads onshore must be prepared to clean up some minor spillage around the trailer before transporting the plant debris away from the boat landing. CLPA transports their harvested plants to a local tree service, which mixes the plant debris with composting sawdust. QLIA would have to make similar disposal arrangements.

The QLIA delegation was favorably impressed with quality of construction of both the Eco-Harvester and its custom hauling trailer made by Karavan.

Bill Wells has coordinated the almost daily operation of Eco-Harvester at Chetek since June of 2016. Bill said maintenance has been easy and mechanical breakdowns almost nonexistent (one minor issue with conveyor system encountered and fixed the day before our visit).

Our delegation is one step closer to offering a recommendation to our fellow QLIA members to begin raising funds to buy an Eco-Harvester (approximately $70,000 including trailer and taxes, etc.). But before we ask for such a substantial sum, we wanted specific assurances that Eco-Harvester would pull Hybrid Eurasian Water Milfoil by the roots and minimize fragmentation into pieces that could take root elsewhere. Company representatives assert that 95% of Eurasian Water Milfoil is pulled out by the roots in the spring when the stems are firm and healthy, not broken upon harvest into floating fragments.

UPDATE: Since our demo tour, we have been able to visit at length with Tom Costigan, manager/operator of a resort and marina on Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey. They have specific experience harvesting nuisance plants with Eco-Harvester, including dense stands of Eurasian watermilfoil (EWM) similar to those in Wilson Bay of Lost Land Lake. Mr. Costigan feels that Eco-Harvester effectively uproots ~75% of EWM in their lake, leaving 25% deeply cut stems and zero floating fragments. After one Eco-Harvester pass last year, one particularly dense stand of EWM near the resort owner’s dock now has only native plants growing in that spot this year. This is exactly the kind of response we seek on Lost Land Lake.

Our demonstration visit and subsequent contacts helped to answer most of our questions. We still have a few questions about permitting, insurance, etc. Once we have all the information we need to be convinced this is the most affordable, effective, and environmentally sound solution to our problem with HEWM, we will notify our fellow QLIA members and begin a pledge drive to raise funds. We will also consider applying for a Recreational Boating Grant from the Governor’s Wisconsin Waterway Program through Wisconsin DNR, which could potentially reimburse us for up to 35% of the cost of this machine, once purchased.