Snowflakes fell from the sky as Fawn Kearns and dozens of volunteers worked along the shore of Frances Slocum Lake to create an island oasis.
Kearns — who is a water resource manager for the Bureau of State Parks and representatives from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Luzerne Conservation District — the Nanticoke Conservation Club and the Fifth Grade Environmental Club at Dallas Elementary braved chilly temperatures on Monday to build two artificial wetland islands used to clean the water in the lake and create an aquatic habitat.
The islands consisted of a recycled plastic fiber mat - called a matrix, that floats on the surface. Holes in the matrix were filled with dirt and planted with native wetland plant species before being towed out and anchored in the lake. A plastic net covered each island to protect the young plants from birds, and while they may look pretty bare right now, Kearns said in time the islands will grow into thick, vegetated mats.
“It takes two to three years before they look like islands,” she said. “The roots grow through the matrix and hang into the water. The roots pull out nutrients, such as phosphorous, and serve as a great fish habitat.”
Kearns said Frances Slocum Lake is the fourth location where DCNR has installed the islands since 2011. The lake was chosen because nutrient build-up in the sediment leads to algae blooms in the summer. She said the islands have been used all over the world for 10 years and have a proven track record. If the islands fare well on the four Pennsylvania lakes, Kearns said, DCNR may install them on more waterways.
“We have high hopes for them,” she said.
But there has been a learning curve.
The first pair of islands were installed at Bradford County’s Mount Pisgah State Park in 2011 and the plants weren’t protected with plastic netting. Kearns said geese got onto the islands and damaged the plants to the point where new vegetation had to be replanted.
On Monday, volunteers pounded wooden stakes into the matrix of each island and used ties to attach plastic netting over the top. The extra step will keep geese, birds, muskrats and other wildlife at bay, while the plants will eventually grow through the netting without inhibition, Kearns said.
While the program is only in its third year, there are already signs of success. The pair of islands installed at Shawnee State Park in southwestern Pennsylvania are thriving after just one year. Kearns said 80 percent of the vegetation planted on the islands survived the first year.
“They’re proven to work,” Kearns said.
Gary Gronkowski, president of the Nanticoke Conservation Club, said his organization has built and deposited approximately 100 porcupine crib structures in Frances Slocum Lake over the last 10 years to improve fish habitat. When they were asked to help out with the islands, the club members were eager to get to work.
“This project goes along nicely with the fish habitat work we’ve done already through the porcupine cribs. You have two benefits with these - fish habitat and cleaner water,” Gronkowski said. “Our club enjoys projects that improve habitat, and the islands were actually pretty easy to put together.”
Other than towing the islands back to shore for the winter and anchoring them in the lake for the rest of the year, there really isn’t any other maintenance required. The hardest part is planting the vegetation and installing the fence, but it was a process that those who came out to the park on Monday enjoyed.
That included the Fifth Grade Environmental Club from Dallas Elementary School. The students were so willing to help out that they made a big sacrifice.
“We skipped lunch and recess to do this,” said fifth grader Joey Sabatini. “We wanted to help because this will help the environment by reducing pollution in the lake and they look nice after they’re in.”
Sabatini and his fellow students braved unusually cold temperatures - along with sacrificing their lunch and recess — to get their hands dirty planting the islands and installing the protective fencing. Fifth grader Taylor Bolesta didn’t mind the dirt and appreciated the chance to a hands-on project.
“It helps me understand the things that we’re learning about in the classroom when you get to actually do it,” he said. “This means a lot because when people see them they’ll appreciate the environment even more.”
Teacher Kristy Taylor, who serves as the advisor for the Environmental Club, said the elementary school arranges numerous wetlands education trips to the park. When the opportunity arose to help out with the islands, the kids jumped at the chance, she said.
“By helping with this, the kids get a sense that they’re part of the solution to the problem,” Taylor said. “They learn about the importance of wetlands and water quality and they can take this and tell the rest of the school about it.”
Until the vegetation starts to flourish, the islands may resemble floating plastic mats. But that will change as the weather warms, said environmental education specialist Kathy Kelchner.
“Come back in six to eight months and you’ll see it turning more into a vegetated floating island with a lot of benefits to the lake and aquatic life,” she said.