Opinions differ over battle to clear waterways of hydrilla



OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. - Hydrilla is an invasive weed that has crowded central Florida's waterways.

Channel 9's Berndt Petersen has learned that several special-interest groups are fighting over whether they should kill it or let it grow.

Ed Harris is Florida Fish and Wildlife's hydrilla hunter.

Hydrilla is an exotic water weed from the Far East that entered the Florida ecosystem back in the 1950s when somebody dumped an aquarium near Tampa.

"In 2003 and 2004, this lake almost looked like a putting green," said Harris, referring to Lake Tohopekaliga, an 18,000-acre state treasure.

The name hydrilla comes from Greek mythology. The hydra was a nine-headed marsh monster. When a head was cut off, two grew in its place. Hercules finally defeated it. But he never wrestled anything like hydrilla found in Florida. It's one of the fastest-growing weeds on the planet.

The rapidly growing plant can choke a lake, making navigation nearly impossible. And it has ruined many a motorboat.

"The hydrilla sucks up around the water pump and your alarm goes off. If you don't get [the engine] shut down in time, it's too late," said boater Perry Horton.

So the state is bombing hydrilla with herbicides and using large machines to chop it to pieces. But it keeps growing back. Statewide, the attack on hydrilla has now cost taxpayers more than $230 million.

"Have taxpayers gotten their money's worth?" Petersen asked Harris.

"It's difficult to say because it changes every year," said Harris.

Some tourism officials wish the state would spend even more. Less hydrilla would open Lake Tohopekaliga to pleasure boating, and lure more multimillion-dollar fishing tournaments.

Duck hunters love the plant because it attracts waterfowl. And even the federal government approves because the plant provides a habitat for one of Florida's rarest birds, the endangered snail kite.

"You might have to pick and choose. Either 20,000 or 30,000 jobs here in central Florida produced by the lake, or a handful of birds," said professional fisherman Terry Seagraves.

That leaves the hydrilla hunters stuck in the middle, waging a very expensive war and fighting what may be a losing battle.

"I think hydrilla is in this lake to stay," said Harris.

According to state officials, hydrilla is present in 40 percent of all the freshwater lakes and rivers in Florida.