Taking on a Big Nuisance with a Bigger Machine

By Beacon Staff

BIGFORK – The Aquamarine H6-230 Harvester is a beast. Weighing 4 tons, it’s equipped with a stainless steel barge and razor-sharp teeth that tear through the thickest patches of waterweeds. And there is only one in Montana.

Lane Ross and his wife Susan, along with friend Tom Steffes, operate a business named Aquatic Weed Abatement of Montana headquartered out of the Eagle Bend Storage Center near Bigfork. While the business partners are certified to chemically treat bodies of water that are infested with unwanted aquatic vegetation, their focus now is the harvester, or “cutter.” That arm of their business is called AquaWeedPro.

The cutter looks like a bionic vehicle from a science-fiction movie. At 32-feet long and 8,000 pounds, it has an intricate hydraulic system that runs off of vegetable oil. It glides across the water, dips its triangular blades under the surface to trim vegetation and uses a conveyer belt system to sort the accumulated weeds onto the barge.

“It draws a crowd,” Ross said. “People are like, ‘There’s a strange orange machine doing something out there.’ It’s farm machinery, is what it is.”

Steffes, a marine technician, had already been in the aquatic weed abatement business before he teamed up with the Rosses to purchase the $200,000 cutter last year. They also have a much smaller cutter attached to a motorboat. Ross and Steffes operate the large cutter, though now that Ross’s son is 18, he will share duties.

AquaWeedPro’s first jobs last summer were to clear out ponds and the marina at Eagle Bend. Now in its second summer, the company’s clientele is steadily growing. Among this summer’s remaining contracts are a cleanup job at Lake Mary Ronan and a large private pond.

Aquatic vegetation can be an unsightly nuisance or, in some cases, a severe detriment to the native plant life of a river, pond or lake. It also clogs up boat propellers and jet ski valves. Many waterweeds grow faster than native plants, stealing sunlight and choking the native vegetation out. And while some people may enjoy the novelty of lily pads, they can take over a body of water. Other types of weeds are similarly unwelcome.

“Once they take over, they literally take the life away,” Ross said.

The H6-230 harvester dips a hydraulically controlled, triangular blade as deep as 6 feet under the water’s surface. The clipped weeds are transferred via conveyor belt onto the barge where it accumulates until a trip to shore is necessary.

At shore, the barge hooks onto a trailer with a conveyor belt and the weeds are placed onto the trailer. From there, the vegetation is transported to a field to dry and then taken to either landscaping companies to be used in mulch or to the landfill. Thus far, Ross said his company hasn’t had to go to the landfill.

In light of growing concerns over the use of herbicides in weed management, Ross said mechanical weed removal is growing in popularity, particularly in the lake-rich Midwest. Ross said the harvester is a perfect fit in Northwest Montana’s lake region. He’s not sure whether he’ll take his services elsewhere in the state, but he believes he could find business.

“Our closest competitor is in Oakland or Seattle,” he said.

Ross said AquaWeedPro will work with a wide variety of entities, including state agencies, city and county governments, and private residences. Homeowners associations, he said, are the biggest customers. Ross and Steffes have already been in discussions with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, as well as Whitefish city officials. They have been approved to operate under the recently passed Whitefish lakeshore regulations, Ross said.

The vegetable oil used in the hydraulics doesn’t damage a lake’s habitat, nor does it leave “a sheen like other oil,” Ross said. The oil, according to Steffes, is the same as what’s used in hydraulic systems at food processing plants.

As for disturbing the water’s animal life, Ross said fish usually see the machine coming from far away and scurry off before they’re in danger. The harvester moves slowly and the operator, if he spots a turtle or other animal, can turn off the engine and make sure the critter gets out of the way. It’s unavoidable that a few young fingerling fish will be collected, Ross said.

AquaWeedPro charges $260 per hour for the large cutter and $140 for the small cutter. Ross said he can usually cut between three-quarters and 1 ¼ acres per hour. The company also charges a $120 transportation fee. For more information, go to www.aquaweedpro.com or call (406) 837-4927.

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