MULLENS COVE, Tenn. - Hydrilla.
It sounds like a town-smashing, late-night movie monster, but the aquatic weed and its partner, watermilfoil, mostly terrorize lakefront property owners and boaters.
"It's like the kudzu of the river," said Mullens Cove resident Nancy Skinner, who moved with her husband, George, from Chicago to Nickajack Lake a dozen years ago.
The non-native plants that flourish in the Tennessee River and around her boat dock start getting bad in June, Skinner said. By August, they become an impenetrable mass surrounding the dock.
"You can't get the boat out, you can't use the Jet Ski. You essentially have no use of the waterway," she said.
Skinner tries to keep the weeds at bay, standing on the dock with a cutter, but it's miserable work and a losing battle, she said.
State and Tennessee Valley Authority officials say non-native aquatic plants, particularly hydrilla, have spread dramatically on Nickajack and Chickamauga lakes. A delay on a new federal permit that would allow the use of herbicides to kill the plants is complicating matters.
TDEC doesn't allow use of herbicides that contain chelated copper - an ingredient that clears away organisms that coat and protect aquatic plants from herbicide - in areas of the Tennessee River the agency considers "exceptional waters," according to officials. On Nickajack, exceptional waters are those from Marion County's U.S. Highway 41 bridge to Williams Island. On Chickamauga, exceptional waters span from Watts Bar Dam to Goodfield Creek in Meigs County.
When the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation's federal permit for herbicide treatment expired, the agency didn't renew it because state officials thought the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's new permit would be completed soon, TDEC spokeswoman Tisha Calabrese-Benton said.
But now officials are saying it might be October before the federal permit gets approval.
Meanwhile, TDEC may issue permits to spray herbicides to newly created Tennessee River Property Owners Aquatic Resource Management Associations. There's a separate group for four TVA reservoirs on the Tennessee River - Chickamauga, Nickajack, Kentucky and Pickwick, Calabrese-Benton said.
The associations were created by Alabama biologist Troy Goldsby, who also owns a company that can administer the herbicide treatments. Instead of getting separate permits to treat water weeds, property owners can join the association for a small fee and be covered under its permit, he said.
The permits must be "at least equal" to EPA standards and can be more restrictive, Calabrese-Benton said.
Under Goldsby's plan, herbicides would be used to treat dock areas and boating lanes within 100 feet of private structures owned by association members, TDEC records show.
Goldsby said his company, Aqua Services Inc., is certified in Tennessee to perform herbicide treatments, but charges for that service are separate from association membership costs.
TVA has curbed its own weed control treatments on Nickajack and Chickamauga near private docks because it lost federal funding, agency aquatic plants biologist David Webb said.
"Now TVA's commitment is to treat within public facilities: public boat ramps, public parks, anything the public uses," he said.
Skinner and Nickajack property owner John Moore, an accountant from Jasper, Tenn., say neither TVA nor TDEC seems interested in allowing Nickajack's stakeholders to do anything about the weeds near their private docks.
In 2006, the EPA issued a "Final Rule" saying Clean Water Act provisions do not apply to registered aquatic pesticides and no permits were needed. Environmental groups filed lawsuits and, in January 2009, the U.S 6th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the rule. As of April, permits are needed to use herbicides and pesticides. EPA hopes to develop by Oct. 31 a general permit for pesticide use - including herbicides.
Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state officials
"TVA told us a year and a half ago they weren't going to do anything about the weeds anymore," said Moore, president of the River Cleanup Alliance on Nickajack. "We are on the sidelines waiting for the opportunity to do something."
Moore and Skinner said they don't know of any other efforts to combat the water weeds.
TVA and TDEC officials agree Nickajack Lake has the worst aquatic weed problems of the four Tennessee River reservoirs.
Hydrilla first was used in Florida as an aquarium plant, Webb said. It probably made its way here on the boats and trailers of vacationers and fishermen, Webb said.
According to TDEC and TVA officials, hydrilla first was documented in Chickamauga Lake in the late 1980s. A spring flood in 1988 pulled up most of it, sending it to the deep, dark water at the base of Chickamauga Dam, officials said. Hydrilla almost vanished from Chickamauga Lake after that, officials said.
But it's starting to make a comeback on Chickamauga, and it comes and goes elsewhere on the river, TDEC officials and Webb said.
Eurasian watermilfoil probably was introduced from a small pond on Watts Bar Lake in the 1960s, he said.
"A property owner was growing it in a concrete fish pond," he said. "What most people think is it was in that fish pond, and I guess when it got full, they cleaned up or washed it out."
Eurasian watermilfoil then spread downstream from Watts Bar over the years.
But there are fans of aquatic plants, including fishermen whose finned targets make their homes in the underwater vegetation.
"Where things sort of get interesting is these plants have benefits for waterfowl and black bass," Webb said. "But if you're a homeowner and you can't get your boat out, you don't want any of it."
Commercial fisherman Wendell Gillis has lived and worked in Marion County for 20 years and makes his living on river catfish. He's noticed that "there's not near as much 'moss' out here as there was this time last year."
On Wednesday, Gillis was unloading hundreds of fish into large plastic tubs not far from Hales Bar Marina in the Guild/Haletown area of Nickajack Lake.
Catfish and other fish like a leafy habitat, and Gillis worries about the impact of herbicides on plants outside treatment areas.
"You're spraying [herbicide] in the water that's moving. It doesn't just stay in one area," he said.
TVA officials are working with the Chattanooga Bass Association to try mechanical devices to combat the weeds around docks and fishing piers on Chickamauga Lake, Webb said. The work probably will take place sometime over the next few weeks, he said.
Devices he called "bottom mats" block light from the bottom of shallow water, where the plants take root, he said.
"But the thing is you have to move them about every 30 days," he said.
Justin Medley, president of the Bass Association, said he strongly opposes using chemicals to control weeds and wants to demonstrate alternatives to homeowners, state and federal authorities and the public.
"I grew up in the generation of kids that got to grow up when this lake was very polluted. There was very little aquatic life in the lake, fishing was as terrible on this river as it's been in recorded history, and I watched it recuperate and recover," Medley said. "It recovered when TVA said they were going to leave it alone."
The river is "back" now, he said.
Dick Urban, with TDEC's Water Pollution Division, said mechanical devices have pros and cons and can be problematic to maintain.
"It's not that they don't work; they have specific areas that they will work better in, but in other areas they create as much problems as they are trying to solve," he said.
"There's no easy answer."
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at 423-757-6569 or firstname.lastname@example.org.