Once Pristine Wawayanda Lake Struggles to Live Again

May 16, 2015 Updated: May 16, 2015

Wawayanda Town Supervisor John Razzano cares about his community, especially when there are problems in his own backyard. He lives in the neighborhood that borders Ridgebury Lake, once a hub of local recreational activities. The lake held a variety of native fish—carp, bluegill, crappie, and bass.

Now a boat cannot even row through the thick forest of weeds. The lake that gave enjoyment to residents who lived around it has turned into a “sea of aquatic vegetation,” according to the town’s website.

At some point, northern snakehead were thrown into the lake, an invasive species that eats most native fish. National Geographic calls it “Frankenfish” for its horrifying behavior. Sharp teeth and the amazing abilities to actually move on land and breathe air cause alarm for conservationists.

The fish is an Asian delicacy and is native to the Far East, although it’s not known how it came to live in the lake. Their presence came to light when a shocked angler caught one and word soon spread.

The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) stepped in. Left in Ridgebury Lake, the northern snakehead could have destroyed all life in the lake and spread to other water systems in the area, resulting in widespread devastation of the aquatic life in the region. In August of 2008 the DEC removed over 220 northern snakehead from the lake at a cost of $200,000.

In August, 2008 the Department began the process of restoring Ridgebury Lake and Catlin Creek downstream to the Route 6 crossing by treating these waters with the fish toxicant CFT Legumine, known as rotenone.

The DEC acknowledged the enormity of an undertaking that impacted the fish population and disrupted the local environment. Over 220 Northern Snakehead were removed, most were breeding and reproducing juvenile fish. The largest was 31 inches and weighed 11 pounds. The DEC checked for residues of rotenone.

Razzano said the DEC removed about 16,000 pounds of fish, of which about 10,000 pounds were carp, which eat vegetation and help to keep the lake bottom clean. The DEC promised to return the lake to its pristine condition.

No Fish, Lots of Weeds

After seven years, the 28-acre body of water lacks fish and is overrun with plants that may turn it into a swamp if action is not taken.

Although carp have been restocked more than once, recent testing by the DEC failed to verify the presence of any carp. It is unknown whether natural predators or the lake jumping its banks during extensive flooding with Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee, and Superstorm Sandy depleted the carp population.

“Frustration is the situation now,” Razzano says. The once beautiful lake has become a breeding ground for mosquitoes and the thick vegetation makes it nearly impossible to use boats.

Since the Northern Snakehead eradication, according to Razzano, recreational activities have all but ceased to exist.

Razzano said the DEC promised to restock last fall but cancelled for lack of funds, and promised to restock this spring. That also did not happen.

The town is seeking donations to purchase sterile grass carp, the only DEC-approved fish which feeds on aquatic vegetation, as well as a fish weir to keep the carp from being pushed out of the lake in flood conditions.

The DEC pledged to work with the community, to develop and monitor the restoration of this fishery, and support additional future restocking. Odor, excessive fish carcasses, and well contamination were noted.

Since then, the Town of Wawayanda has received donations from businesses, and only little help from the DEC, to help purchase sterile grass carp in an effort to restore the ecosystem of Ridgebury Lake.