Women in Science: Jenifer Parsons

On the frontline of the battle with invasive aquatic weeds

“There’s certainly no lack of work,” Jenifer Parsons says of her work fighting invasive plants in Washington’s waters. “It’s like holding my finger in the dike sometimes.”
Scientist on a boat pulls water plants from a rake

Jenifer Parsons gathers plant samples on a Washington lake in search of invasive species. 

Parsons is at the forefront of Washington’s fight against invasive plants. For the past 26 years, she has monitored aquatic plant populations throughout the state for our Environmental Assessment Program, first in Olympia and, since 2000, in the Central Regional Office.
She spends much of her time on the water, evaluating lakes and ponds for both the presence of invasive species like Eurasian milfoil, and tracking the health of native plant species. Her analyses turn into data and technical advice that is used by local noxious weed boards, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Washington State Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Natural Resources, to control the invaders and protect native plant stocks.  
The work takes her across the state, funded from a $3 fee added to boat trailer registrations, which is overseen by the Water Quality Program’s Aquatic Invasive Plants Management program. 
On a typical day, Parsons will launch one of several boats — she has a 16-footer, a 10-foot Jon boat, and a selection of rafts — and circle the shoreline of a lake, collecting samples and making estimates about the relative abundance of different species. 

Don't let these good looks fool you

In recent years, public plant enemy number one has been flowering rush, which grows along shallow shorelines and produces striking umbrella-shaped clusters of pale pink flowers. 
However pretty they may be, the rush pose a real threat to salmon habitat, both because they overgrow the gravel beds salmon need to lay their eggs, and because the dense stands of flowering rush provide ideal hiding spots for salmon predators like the northern pike.
“They get huge and they eat anything,” Parsons says of the northern pike. “They’re pretty scary.”
Flowering rush are far from alone in threatening Washington’s aquatic ecosystems. Variable leaf milfoil, Eurasian milfoil, hydrilla, South American spongeplant… the list goes on and on. 
“It is hard to see that many of the lakes I love are struggling,” Parsons said. “There are always more invasive species problems than funding to manage them.”  

It's not all bad news...

handful of wet green weeds

Hydrilla is an invasive weed that was successfully eradicated in Washington. Photo Jon Sullivan, Creative Commons

Parsons and her state and local partners have had successes — hydrilla was wiped out in a pair of lakes in Kent and has not spread further. Eurasion milfoil and Brazilian egeria have been eradicated in certain lakes and ponds. 
Often, the most effective tool is education, Parsons says. Property owners along lakes tend to prefer crystal-clear waters — which are not natural or healthy in many areas. They may wipe out native plants along with invasives when they treat the water, which can in turn give a boost to toxic algae blooms.
“I’m always trying to help people realize that plants are a natural part of lake ecosystems,” Parsons said. “A lot of people want a plant-free lake ecosystem.”
Despite the challenges, working on the water and protecting Washington’s environment makes for a rewarding job, Parsons says. 
“I love being out on lakes all across the state, and I love working with plants, so it has been a great job for me,” she said. “I initially chose to work at Ecology because the job closely aligned with my studies and interests, and I have stayed because I enjoy the work, the supportive work environment, and the people I work with.”  
You can learn more about Jenifer’s work and learn to identify native plant species on our website.
Pink flowers with yellow stamen

Flowering rush are an invasive plant that threaten salmon habitat. Photo Christian Fischer, Creative Commons