Aquatic vegetation a problem on the Tenn-Tom Waterway

The Tenn-Tom Waterway is under siege.
Exotic aquatic vegetation has been spreading at an alarming pace throughout the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, creating numerous problems for recreation users, as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who are charged with combating the problem.
Much like an underwater version of kudzu, various species of foreign plantlife have been introduced into the 234-mile waterway. With no natural predators, nothing to eat or destroy the alien vegetation, the plants have been allowed to spread virtually unchecked.
That’s not to say the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the waterway, hasn’t tried fighting back the foreign invaders; it’s just largely an uphill battle. According to Nick Baggett, national resources manager for the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, the plants’ rate of growth far exceeds the group’s ability to strike back.
During growing seasons, this invasive vegetation can spread from one plant to dozens of millions within months, with each growing between eight and 15 feet in height.
“We have a large area of potential habitat,” Baggett said.” There are approximately 40,000 acres of potential habitat for these plants to grow and a very limited budget set aside for treatment.”
The fight is important because these plants create all sorts of problems for both recreational and commercial boaters, blocking the flow of traffic down the waterway.
“Typically, the biggest complaint is that [the aquatic vegetation] blocks the small channels going into creeks and bays,” Baggett said, adding that the clogging prevents boaters from finding decent locations to boat. “Also, given the right conditions it can really play havoc in the open water.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spends approximately $200,000 each year poisoning aquatic vegetation spread across more than 3,000 acres of the waterway. According to Baggett, the areas that are treated are selected based on criteria such as location, density and likelihood to spread. He said the group’s first concern is navigation, as well as keeping locks and dams open.
Falling further down the list of criteria are areas like parks and private requests for personal docks, etc.
According to Baggett, the Corps has tried to remain honest with the public as to the extent of the problem, and the extent of what can be done. The agency even hosted a series of informative lectures in January to let the public know just how difficult the fight has been.
“We want to be proactive in this,” Baggett said. “We wanted to take this public and make people aware of the problem as best we could.”
Baggett said the Corps even introduced a program in which individuals could consult with a Corps biologist and become licensed to treat infested areas themselves, cutting out the middleman.
“We’ve had a really good response to that program, and it’s reduced our workload a lot,” Baggett said, adding that the public has been largely understanding of the entire issue.
“Public response has been very understanding. I’ve always been of the opinion of being straightforward with the public …. less rumors and more understanding,” he said.

Origins
Just how these plants got in the waterway to begin with is up in the air. According to Baggett, any number of situations could have occurred to begin their initial spread.
“Someone could have had a water garden adjacent to a stream, then an overflow occurs and the plants get in the stream and meander down the waterway,” Baggett suggested. “Or, they could have gotten caught in the propellers of boats and spread that way.”
Baggett said most of the alien species originate from Asia and South America, with hydrilla, Cuban bulrush, common silvinia and water hyacinth being the most prevalent culprits.
Although Baggett had no specific information regarding the vegetation’s growth throughout the Itawamba County area, local reports indicate that boaters have experienced some troubles with the dense vegetation.
“We’ve definitely had reports of it expanding up in that area,” Baggett said, referring to the area of the Whitten Center, specifically. He said the density of vegetation varies not only from location to location, but from year to year. “It’s worse in some areas than others, and not the same every year. We have to monitor every year … It’s not something we can predict every year.”

Adam Armour can be reached at 862-3141, by e-mailing adam.armour@itawamba360.com or by visiting his blog at itawamba360.com.

Adam Armour/The Itawamba County Times