Communities Unite Against Invasive Aquatic Weeds

Published May 1, 2006

It’s not uncommon for environmental activists to butt heads with scientists, economists, businesses, and grassroots citizen groups. The showdown of power and ideas often upstages the issues themselves.

But in the ongoing battle against Eurasian milfoil–a noxious invasive weed that is choking out native plants and animals in bodies of fresh water across America–these groups are finding plenty of common ground.

Highly Aggressive Weed

Eurasian milfoil is a highly aggressive aquatic weed native to Europe and Asia. It takes root at the bottom of ponds and lakes and sends tendrils as long as 30 feet to the water’s surface. Near the surface, the plants form a dense mat of entangling weeds that deprives the water of oxygen and chokes out native plants and animals.

The mat of weeds is often thick enough to make swimming, boating, and other recreation hazardous or even impossible. The weeds emit a noxious odor that makes strolling along the shore extremely unpleasant. Swimmers have died after becoming entangled in milfoil tendrils.

The invasive species was accidentally introduced to North America during the middle of the twentieth century. It is now entrenched in a patchwork of ponds and lakes across most of the continental United States. With each passing year, milfoil takes over a larger area of each body of water where it is present, and spreads to new ones by hitching a ride on boat propellers and hulls.

Environmental activists have long sounded warnings about invasive species reaching North American shores and choking out native plant and animal life. While those warnings have not always been research-based, in this case environmental activists, businesses, scientists, economists, and grassroots citizens all agree: Healthy aquatic ecosystems require action against milfoil.

Aquatic Herbicide Success

Fortunately, science has found an answer to milfoil: Aquatic herbicides, under such brand names as Sonar, Aqua-Kleen, and Navigate, effectively kill Eurasian milfoil while leaving fish, waterfowl, and native plants unaffected. Aquatic herbicide success stories have been reported across the country, with herbicides proving more effective, economical, and environmentally friendly than all other methods of weed control.

Rhode Island state Rep. Raymond Sullivan (D-Coventry) spearheaded an aquatic herbicide campaign last year that has resurrected once-dead Lake Mishnock. “You should see the lake now,” Sullivan boasted. “The difference is like night and day. Lake Mishnock is central to the community’s way of life, and the lake is absolutely beautiful again.”

Kneejerk Opposition

Many environmental activists have supported the use of herbicides in the battle against milfoil only after seeing firsthand the safe and effective results in their own communities. In some communities, frustrated citizens are forced to fight prolonged battles against activists opposed to anything “chemical.”

Another obstacle is more complex. Infested lakes often span multiple counties or townships. As a result, sufficient coordination–both logistical and financial–is often lacking. Communities may build near-unanimous support for herbicide treatment but fall victim to unnecessary delays as multiple government bodies work out funding and struggle over mountains of red tape.

Idaho Action

Idaho Rep. Eric Anderson (R-Priest Lake) is hoping his state will take the lead in addressing these issues. Anderson has introduced legislation to create a statewide program to combat milfoil. The Idaho Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on March 29 unanimously voted to allocate $4 million to the Department of Agriculture to fight milfoil, as part of the “Strengthening Idaho Act of 2006.”

“It’s probably the biggest environmental hazard to this state that exists today,” said Anderson. “If we don’t take care of it now, it will cost us millions more and spread to water bodies across the state.”

With the Idaho legislature poised to lead the way, Eurasian milfoil may finally have met its match–politically as well as scientifically.

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.