With The Lily Pads Gone, Lake Surprise Now Glistens

MOUNTAINSIDE—As the long, thick white roots emerged from the bottom of the lake, shoots dangling like tentacles, it all seemed more like a scene from a science fiction horror movie.

In reality, it was Mother Nature at her most resourceful, underneath the surface of Lake Surprise in Union County’s Watchung Reservation.  Anyone questioning why the eastern, more shallow end of the lake was so covered with lily pads only had to look at the massive root system being hauled up from the lake bottom to understand why.


While most of Lake Surprise is free of lily pads—more than half the lake cannot even be seen from the road—the lily pads overwhelmed the more popular fishing spots, including a new area created to provide access for the disabled.  Fishing lines would get entangled with all the vegetation, making it increasingly difficult to cast out any distance, according to county parks officials.

“This project follows up on the dredging of Lake Surprise that we did several years ago,” said Freeholder Bette Jane Kowalski, liaison to the Department of Parks and Community Renewal.  “Now, with the undergrowth removed, people can better appreciate the beauty of this lake. And it will be more accessible for fishing.”

In late September, after soliciting multiple quotes, the county hired Aquatic Technologies for $17,450. The Sussex County firm moved in with its arsenal of specialized equipment to combat the lily pad invasion—in this case, a species of lily pad known as Spatterdock.

To clean the 24-acre lake, they brought in a hydro-raking machine and a conveyor/harvester, both driven by sidewheels similar to the Mississippi riverboats of an earlier era, although on a much smaller scale.  The sidewheels give the boats the torque needed to pull the roots from the lake bed,  said Chris Hanlon, the firm’s president, explaining how the hydro-rake, with  a 12-foot wide array of prongs,  digs into the sediment and pulls out the roots.

“The tubers sit below the sediment, so you have to loosen them up and then rake,” Hanlon said.

Simply cutting off the floating lily pads would not accomplish anything because the root system is so vast that new lily pads would reemerge quickly.

The only way to gain control of the situation is by dealing with the roots, Hanlon said.  And having been in the business for 21 years, he has seen how bad it can get.

“Sometimes they’ll get as thick as your leg,” Hanlon said. But the goal is not to eliminate all the Spatterdock.

“They’re extremely beneficial,” Hanlon said, noting how the plants help filter the lake water.  So plants will be left by the edges of the lake away from the more popular fishing areas.

Once the overall growth of the lily pads is checked, it will require far less herbicide to control their numbers in the future, he said.

Native Americans would eat the roots of plants like lily pads.  The roots, which are called tubers, resemble yams or sweet potatoes and are high in starch.

However, Native Americans never would have eaten from the plants in Lake Surprise because the lake did not exist until 1845.  The lake was created by David Felt when he built a dam on the Blue Brook. It was part of the water supply system powering a mill built downstream from the Seeley’s Pond dam.  In 1930, the earthen dam that Felt built was reinforced with stone.

Cleaning the lake

Lake Surprise in Union County’s Watchung Reservation was covered with lily pads that had spread across the eastern end of the lake. The county hired Aquatic Technologies, a Sussex County firm, to remove the lily pads, which were snaring fishing lines and making canoeing difficult.  In order to clean the lake,  the hydro-rake(right) scoops down into the sediment to pull up the roots while the harvester(left) scoops up the material floating on the surface.

Raking the bottom2

With the sidewheels churning in reverse, Kyle Keane of Port Jervis, NY, drags the hydro-rake along the bottom of Lake Surprise in order to dig up the roots of the Spatterdock, the lily pad species that had taken over the eastern end of the lake.  The machine uses sidewheels rather than propellers so that there is sufficient torque, or pull, to rip the weeds from the lake bottom, said Chris Hanlon, whose firm Aquatic Technologies, was hired by the county to remove the lily pads.

Pulled roots

It doesn’t take long before the hydro-rake is filled with roots of the lily pads that had taken over the eastern end of Lake Surprise.  The load is then transferred to the harvester and brought to shore, where a truck took the plants to the county compost facility in Springfield.

Preparing to unload

With a full load of pulled of lily pads, Joe Delellis of Sparta prepares to transfer the plants to a waiting truck, to be taken to Union County’s compost facility in Springfield.


Looking like some alien creature, the roots of the Spatterdock can grown to the size of a man’s leg, said Chris Hanlon, whose firm Aquatic Technologies, was hired by Union County to remove the lily pads from Lake Surprise in the Watchung Reservation.

Root Inside

The root of  the Spatterdock is a tuber, similar to a sweet potato.  It was part of the diet of native Americans.

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