ALWAYS ON THE JOB: Rick Dickson in a familiar spot, on his boat patrolling Harvard’s Bare Hill Pond to clear away water-chestnut plants. SUN / Julia
ALWAYS ON THE JOB: Rick Dickson in a familiar spot, on his boat patrolling Harvard's Bare Hill Pond to clear away water-chestnut plants. SUN / Julia Malakie

Editor's note: This is the latest in The Sun's "Be a Volunteer" series, focusing on people who join community nonprofits. Got a suggestion? Email it to news@lowellsun.com.

HARVARD -- When Rick Dickson moved back home around 2004, he started pulling weeds. He hasn't stopped yet.

Things are slowing down in the weed department though.

That first summer back, he spent 320 hours over the course of 10 weeks removing water chestnuts from Bare Hill Pond. This summer, he plans to spend about 10 hours in total fighting the growth.

The invasive weed covers the surface of the water, choking out native vegetation. When Dickson began his attack, 10 acres were covered.

Rick Dickson checks out a plastic barrier he placed across Clapp’s Brook cove about eight years ago to keep water chestnuts from spreading in Bare
Rick Dickson checks out a plastic barrier he placed across Clapp's Brook cove about eight years ago to keep water chestnuts from spreading in Bare Hill Pond. SUN / Julia Malakie
Another 40 acres were in danger of being overrun.

Keeping the pond alive means keeping his family history alive. During the summer, he and his wife live in an island house his great-grandfather built.

Each morning, he brings his wife on a boat to her car at the town beach. His family once owned that land. Then, rain or sun, he can work on his self-imposed watery task before getting to his real estate job later in the day.

"My job is to get rid of the weed, not to pass it off to anyone else," the self-appointed volunteer said.

The first step, years ago, was using a harvester owned and maintained by the town, to create a path through the weeds. Then, it was back and forth, widening the channel until the surface was clear, hauling the resulting debris out of the water.


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He created a pile 6 feet high and 6 feet wide of the weed on the shore. When asked if it stunk he said, "Oh, big time, big time." Scattered through a conservation area, it soon composted.

The harvester could get the bulk of the growth, but the weed is as persistent as Dickson is determined. For several years, three times each year, volunteers gathered to go out on the pond in canoes and kayaks to pull the weeds hiding where the harvester could not go.

The plant is deceptively attractive.

Rick Dickson of Harvard points to the town beach on the map of Bare Hill Pond. He boats around the pond searching for invasive water chestnuts, which he
Rick Dickson of Harvard points to the town beach on the map of Bare Hill Pond. He boats around the pond searching for invasive water chestnuts, which he has almost succeeded in eliminating from the pond over a period of years. SUN / JULIA MALAKIE
A crown of green leaves supporting a new seed spreads on the water surface. The plant is rooted to the ground up to 15 feet under the water.

They are easy to pull out. Dickson found a few isolated plants on a sunny summer day this year. He shook the plant gently before easing it up, attempting to remove the planted seed so it would not regrow. No luck.

He will return to the spot to check for regrowth next year. In the past, he put markers, a chunk of pool noodle weighted with a rock, to mark the spot where seeds might remain. Sometimes, the buoys would last the winter.

Water chestnuts are survivors. A seed is viable for 12 years, able to spring into life long after its greenery is gone.

One year, the current carried the spiky seeds from the cove to the town beach. It had to be cleaned because beach-goers were injured, he said.

His campaign is successful. The water chestnuts are few and far between except in a small cove, directly across from the town beach. It remains a center of contagion.

Dickson installed a rope barrier to keep the plants he cannot eradicate corralled in the small section of the pond. Boats can pass over but the seeds have a harder time spreading.

Bare Hill Pond is in such good shape with its water chestnuts that Dickson took on a new challenge. He volunteered on the Assabet River this year.

Things get ugly when water chestnuts grow out of control. In 2008 and 2009, grants enabled Pepperell and the Nashua River Watershed Association to harvest the Nashua River near Pepperell Pond.

But, money ran out and harvesting stopped. Hand-pulls could not keep up with the weed. Last summer, a rotted mass of water chestnuts collected behind the dam on the pond. It stunk.

Dickson's work is an important part of the work that keeps the pond in good condition, said Bruce Leicher, chairman of the Bare Hill Pond Watershed Management Committee.

"Rick was essential," he said.

Through the 1960s, herbicides kept weeds under control, Leicher said. When changing environmental concerns put an end to the use of chemicals in the 1970s and 1980s, invasive species returned. 

Cleaning the pond is a learning experience.

The town bought a harvester. Unfortunately, milfoil, one of the more numerous invasives, is spread by cuttings, Leicher said. New growth flourished.

"At the end of the 90s, it was really, really bad," he said. The state put the pond on the endangered list.

With the help of about $600,000 in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grants and much volunteer effort, the pond come back to life.

Volunteers built a pump house and draw the water down each winter. Exposure to the cold and lack of water kill invasive plants, leaving the more hardy native plants, Leicher said.

The water chestnuts are not affected by the draw-down because they grow from seeds. "Rick took care of the water chestnuts," he said.

New stormwater treatment in the center of town also helps. Phosphorus levels in the pond were high, an effect of drainage from parking lots and roads.

The town installed rain gardens, plantings over a filtration area to remove pollutants. The phosphorus level was cut in half, Leicher said.

Bare Hill Pond is well-used. The coves are popular with kayakers, Dickson said. Then he described the route to follow for water skiing.

The town beach is open. Water lilies grow. The fight against invasive plants continues.

Every day on the pond is a good day, thanks to the effort of Dickson and so many others.

Follow Anne O'Connor on Twitter @a1oconnor.