By Jeannine anderson
WASHINGTON – The federal government needs to restore funds to a program that removes hydrilla and other nuisance plants from the Potomac River, a regional board unanimously agreed Wednesday.
Unless federal money is restored, some public beaches along the river in Maryland and Virginia are likely to be overrun with weeds, said Stuart Freudberg, director of environmental programs for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. And boaters could be aggravated this summer by strings of hydrilla winding around their propellers, he warned.
Federal funds used to mow hydrilla were cut by President Clinton from the budget that went into effect Oct. 1. One of the worst consequences could be that property owners “would probably take matters into their own hands,” Freudberg told the COG board.
They could be tempted to use chemicals or herbicides to kill the plant, and this would harm the river, he said.
“I’ve heard of people dumping diesel fuel, gasoline or herbicides” in the water to try to kill hydrilla, Brian LeCouteur, an environmental planner for COG, said in an interview.
Copper sulfate is another chemical that will kill hydrilla, “but it kills everything else, too,” including fish, he said.
For the last decade, COG has managed the local effort to keep boating channels and beaches free of hydrilla and other fast-growing weeds. The program removes hydrilla in strategic parts of the river from Alexandria, Va., to the Route 301 bridge, which connects Charles County in Maryland with King George County in Virginia. No chemicals or herbicides are used.
A giant mowing machine cuts channels so boats can get from launching ramps and marinas out to open water. If the plants were not cut, boats would not be able to get through the dense growth.
The program has been getting half its funds from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The remaining money has been contributed by Maryland and Virginia.
But the Corps of Engineers was allotted no money for the program for fiscal year 1997, after Clinton eliminated the $2.5 million Congress had approved to fight the nuisance plants nationwide. “The federal matching funds are essential to the states’ ability to participate,” Freudberg said.
At least $75,000 a year in federal funds is needed to keep the regional hydrilla-fighting program alive, he said.
Montgomery County Council member William Hanna Jr., a COG board member, suggested one way to save the government money would be to urge boat owners who own land along the Potomac River to clear water passages for a fee. “The amount of money you’re talking about doesn’t seem like a huge amount of money,” he said. “There are a lot of boat owners.”
Hydrilla is an exotic plant that was introduced to this region by mistake, Freudberg said. The U.S. Geological Service first discovered it at Dyke Marsh in Fairfax County in 1982. At the time, the plant covered about 10 acres. Two years later, it had grown to cover 600 acres and had spread to other areas of the Potomac.
“Once established in the Potomac, hydrilla became widespread throughout the river system, often out-competing many of the native aquatic plants and closing many of the river’s navigational areas,” he said. Hydrilla also plagues many other bodies of water in the United States, especially in the South and Southeast, he noted. -30-