Killer Weed

The life-suffocating Salvinia molesta has entered Texas waterways. It's green, fast and deadly.

Government authorities and the state's bass fishermen, in fact, recently tangled noisily over plans to use herbicides to control hydrilla in Central Texas's Lake Bastrop.

"Eighteen months ago the Lower Colorado River Authority put a bunch of chemicals into Lake Bastrop to kill the hydrilla, and they had a near-riot on their hands," says Neil Carman, a director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. "The bass fishermen protested and the two sides got together, but the whole thing just about disintegrated. We were ready to say, 'Screw you, we'll just see you in the Legislature.' They were very concerned that herbicides would be used that would kill vegetation that's good for the habitat."

Partly as a result of that skirmish, various bass-fishing groups formed an umbrella organization called SMART, or Sensible Management of Aquatic Resources Together.

SMART vice president Ed Parten says he's already involved in the fight against Giant Salvinia. Although the group is trying to raise funds to purchase harvesters to battle various types of noxious vegetation (such machines can go for as much as $200,000), he says he's resigned to the fact that some herbicides will be needed.

"I know some type of chemicals will be used, but if it's to the degree of severity that we have seen in the past it will be very detrimental," Parten says. "We're extremely concerned about this vegetation and the possibility of what it will do.... We're scared to death of it; I don't know of one person who wants it in the water of Texas. [Using herbicides] is the price we might have to pay -- if you don't do it, this plant will kill everything else that's good in the water; it will choke it out and it won't live."

State officials, naturally, insist that they will be cautious and conservative in any use of chemicals. "We're not going to start a herbicide operation next week and nuke the lake, but [using chemicals] is something we're going to have to consider," Helton says. "We can target the plants that we want to spray."

There's nothing in the scientific research literature, by the way, that indicates there is any particular chemical, or chemical compound, that is very effective in eradicating Giant Salvinia. Australians have had some success with paraquat, but that substance -- known chiefly for its use in killing marijuana plants -- is banned by federal law from being used in U.S. waters because it's harmful to humans and can kill fish.

It's not only state agencies that Parten and other fishermen are worried about. Also posing a threat will be homeowners who find their lakeside lots now look like they are far from shore because the water is covered by a grassy-looking mat of plants. The state of Texas has few regulations against private use of herbicides on its waterways.

"Chemicals that you can get arrested for if you pour them on the ground, you are freely able to pour them in public waters," says Parten, whose group will be lobbying for tougher regulations in the upcoming legislative session. Homeowners who decide to take matters into their own hands may do more harm than good, he says.

"We're not a bunch of radicals here screaming 'No Chemicals.' We want the people who use chemicals to be responsible," Parten says.

Pittman, of the Chemical Connection, takes a harder line. "We really can't comprehend a situation where you would want to use chemicals, but we know there is one that might come up. This [Giant Salvinia] isn't one, if you think creatively. Just go and suck it out and suck it out again."

Just what methods will be used to fight The Beast have yet to be determined by the Task Force, but decisions will have to be made before warm weather and the prime growing season arrives. Whatever the plan is, it will likely cost millions of dollars in federal and state funds.

Any hopes that a Texas winter would kill off molesta have been pretty much dashed. "I went over [to Toledo Bend] this week to see if the freeze we had did any damage to the plant," Helton said on New Year's Eve. "The plants were still bright green. It looks like the Christmas Week freeze did minimal if any damage. I don't think the plants are growing so aggressively now, because we're below the temperatures they need to do it. But if winter is not hurting it, then it's just waiting for spring, and it will really take off."

"Southeast Texas is just totally suitable for it," says Ron Jones, the federal biologist who first discovered the plant at Browning Elementary. "The potential for growth is mind-boggling. We know it's wintered through one year and maybe two. It's probably capable of surviving as far north as Dallas, and that takes in just about all of the major lakes we have. It's going to be an issue across all of the southeastern U.S."

Right now, officials are asking the public to report any Giant Salvinia sightings and to thoroughly wash off their watercrafts when leaving a lake. If molesta makes it to other Texas lakes or other states, it will likely do so through the courtesy of some careless boater.

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