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The Job Picture: Milfoil choppers

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Bart Miller and Randy Smith pilot one of the few paddle-wheel-driven contraptions on our local stretch of the Columbia River, and many water lovers are thankful they do.

Every summer, the two Chelan County PUD park maintenance guys crank up the Aquarius Systems aquatic-weed harvester to cut and remove tons of Eurasian milfoil at parks and boat launches dotting the river from the Beebe Bridge to Rock Island Dam. It’s a two-month job, this year running about a month late due to cool weather and high water.

Mostly, they’re working four 10-hour days per week under broiling sun and in strong currents to snip away great swathes of the spiky, submerged invader — native to Europe, Asia and Africa, and (now that it’s here) highly adaptive to Northwest waters.

On Wednesday, the crew was slicing and dicing those rampant rascals at the Kirby Billingsley Hydro Park swimming area south of East Wenatchee.

“Milfoil’s a fast-growing weed that, to put it in simple terms, is heat activated,” said Miller (in photo), 53, who’s in his third year as co-captain of the chugging, clanking floating harvester. “We see it in the same places just about every year as the weather warms up, so we’re getting good at knowing where to start cutting.”

Smith, 42, now in his sixth year of harvesting the pesky plant, said, “In the last three weeks, it’s been coming on strong. The high water’s kept it back for a few weeks, but now the river levels and weather are perfect for it to take off.”

Without the PUD’s harvesting program, said the workers, boat launches and swimming areas would be choked with the weed. “Most people like the program,” said Miller, “but some question it. They say the cutting just spreads the seeds or something. I’ve never noticed that to be the case, though.”

Through the day, Miller and Smith swap jobs, one guy running the harvester, the other manning the truck that hauls away the cuttings. Trailer loads of milfoil are dumped nearby, where the stuff composts in a couple of months to practically nothing. “The piles shrink down really fast because the plant is so full of water,” said Smith. “Once that water evaporates, there’s not much left.”

It works like this: The pilot of the paddle-propelled harvester lowers front cutting blades to optimum depth and snips away. The cut weeds float onto a conveyor that lifts them to a storage bin. When that bin gets full — in thick growth, it takes only about a half hour to fill it — Miller and Smith use a conveyor in the stern to off-load the cuttings onto a trailer that hauls 'em away.

“All in all, it’s a good job, except for one thing,” said Miller, pointing up to the sun, burning at noon in a cloudless sky. “We’re on the water, but this is mostly hot work. It can be very hot work.”