After successes last summer, the Lakes Environmental Association is now taking on Sebago Cove.

The Lakes Environmental Association declared victory over the milfoil infestation in Songo River and Brandy Pond last year, after bringing the invasive plant to a manageable level. The work in the Sebago Lake region, however, is not over.

So on the morning of June 21, six members of the associations’ milfoil team headed out on Sebago Cove, where the next chapter of work for the environmental association is now under way.

The presence of Milfoil, non-native to Maine’s lakes, is harmful to native freshwater plants and disagreeable to boaters and swimmers. The plant is thin, tubular and silky to the touch. From a distance, it looks like the tail of an animal dyed green. Up close, the plant’s spires give it the look of a miniature pine tree.

Sebago Cove poses an even bigger undertaking than Brandy Pond and Songo River, according to Christian Oren, the association’s milfoil control coordinator. The cove is the perfect storm for millfoil growth: It’s muddy and shallow – no more than 10-feet deep – which means light can penetrate to the bottom, stimulating photosynthesis.

“There’s milfoil shore to shore,” Oren said of the cove, “which means more area to cover.”

But the association has learned from its work on Brandy Pond and the Songo River what it takes to remove milfoil and bring it under control, Oren said.

It has also hired three more crew members than in previous years, some of whom are concentrating their efforts on Sebago Lake, where the association is also working to combat the invasive plant.

The crew, aboard the S.S. Libra, heads straight for the north end of the cove. That’s where the work will start, following the water body’s natural current, as was the process on Songo River and Brandy Pond.

Milfoil is particularly difficult to eradicate, Oren said, because when the plant is fragmented, often by boat motors,  the fragments can resettle at the bottom of the lake and grow again. By working with the current, the crew members avoid re-infestation of the plant.

In an area close to the shoreline at the north end of the cove, the crew has laid tarps on the lake bottom, which kill the milfoil by preventing light from reaching the plants, Oren said.

The tarps, laced with steel rebar to keep them in place, remain on the lake bottom for 60 days. They are used “only when there’s 100 percent milfoil infestation,” according to Oren, “because they kill any native plants, which we are trying to preserve.”

Each member of the crew, most of whom are college-age, takes a different role in the process, although they rotate regularly between tasks.

The S.S. Libra is manned by two of the crew’s young men. Onboard the boat is a suction harvester, which was originally used to sift for precious gold. Now, the refurbished equipment is on the front lines of preserving what is considered by environmentalists and residents alike the region’s most precious asset – its lakes.

The harvester works by a pump, which sucks the water and milfoil through a long, black hose.

But suctioning the milfoil isn’t quite as easy as sucking up dirt with a vacuum, Oren said. There are two divers crawling along the lake floor ripping up each plant by hand, and they need to focus on pulling up the plant by the roots, or else the plant will fragment.

“It’s impressive and annoying how well the plant grows,” Oren said.

One of the divers, Derek Douglass of Bridgton, said it’s murky below the surface, and often difficult to see. He said, however, that the milfoil is “pretty easy to distinguish” from other plants, although he’s had plenty of practice. This is his fifth summer on the team.

While the work is “a little dirty,” Douglass said, “the great thing about the job is being able to look back and see progress. You can see the difference of the work you’re putting in.”

Once the plants travel through the hose, they reach a trough, where they are separated into bags. Last Tuesday morning, Sully Tidd of Casco was responsible for removing the bags once they became filled with the plants.

“It’s a real hassle because you have to be quick,” Tidd yelled over the hum of the harvester, “otherwise the bags overflow and spill back out.”

Depending on how thick the plants are, the five bags under the trough can be filled in two to five minutes, Tidd said. But Wednesday morning, the team wasn’t pulling as much milfoil as usual.

The team had already been through the area with a hose once, Oren said, and was doubling back to “check we’ve pulled up all the plants the first time through.”

Because the crew’s strategy is to concentrate efforts on one small area at a time, “it doesn’t look, from an outside perspective, like we’re making any progress,” he said. “But then we move the very intensive work down the water body.”

Other milfoil control groups, Oren said, tend to spread their efforts over a large area, but find the following year the plant has grown back.

An effective strategy, he said, is “to attack the problem very hard early in the season, and work faster than it grows.”

“There was a group here doing work before,” Oren said, “and they did OK. But I think we can do better.”