Invasive weed clogging Indiana waterways

A large green layer of duck weed coats the surface.

It almost conjures up images from the cult movie "The Creature from the Black Lagoon." Milfoil is an invasive weed that is spreading like wildfire through many of the state's waterways. It's affecting boating, other types of water recreation and, at times, the water supply.

Eyewitness News joined three self-described "river rats" on a pontoon tour of the White River to see what's lurking just below the surface and why it's become a growing concern.

On a cool, foggy morning I joined Kevin Hardie on the banks of the White River. Hardie is executive director of the Friends of the White River, a group formed to help protect, preserve and enhance the water way.

Since starting in 1985, Hardie said there have been a lot of changes "and most of those are for the better."

But some are for the worse, and Hardie and his crew were eager to show us. We left the boat ramp at Broad Ripple Park and headed north with Brant Cowser at the helm.

Cowser lives on the river and knows it like the back of his hand.

It didn't take long before he steered us right into one of the huge changes he's seen: a large green layer of duck weed coating the surface.

"We haven't noticed duck weed in the past and this year in the mornings when you wake up, the river is almost solid green with duck weed," he said.

He took us to the edge of an inlet that was pure green. While the duck weed has drawn more water fowl species - wood ducks, blue herons, even osprey, it's also getting caught up with milfoil, a very invasive plant, that began appearing before the duck weed.

Looking over the edge the pontoon, Hardie pointed to large, billowy plants swaying just below the surface.

"It's forming just huge mats," he said. "And it's moved downstream in the course of summer."

We used an underwater camera to get a closer look. From below, milfoil looks like a thick, impassible glob of green. Milfoil can overtake a water way in no time at all.

Reaching over to grab some, it came up easily, hanging in my hand like a fistful of cooked spinach. And that's the problem.

As Cowser said, "The milfoil multiplies on segmentation, so what we're doing is spreading it when we go through it in a boat, so it's going to be worse down river."

Dan Valleskey, who's with the Hoosier Canal Club, said there are parts of the river he no longer canoes.

"It makes boats go slow. It's frustrating. It bogs you down," Vallesky said.

It's made water skiing and tubing more difficult. But worse yet, it's embedding itself in a main source of drinking water. While the weed itself isn't harmful to people, it can slow the flow of water as it's done in the Central Canal which takes water to the treatment plant.

While Citizens Energy has spent several hundred thousand dollars cutting the weed back, it's just a temporary solution. Treating the weed with chemicals is tough because of dangers to the water supply.

Valleskey calls the weed "an indicator. It's not the milfoil itself that worries me. It's why it's growing like that. What's going on in the river that's causing these changes? That's what worries me because we're drinking this water."

Milfoil thrives in the hot, dry conditions we saw this summer and it grows rapidly with the help of fertilizer and other run-off.

Hardie says it's a problem everyone needs to be concerned about.

"You might not live on the White River, but there's that saying 'we all live downstream,' you're going to live near a drain ditch which will lead to the river which is part of the watershed," he said.

Milfoil isn't jut a problem in the White River. In fact, the Department of Natural Resources recently adopted a new rule prohibiting the sale, distribution or possession of 28 invasive aquatic plants, including milfoil.

Milfoil and some of the other plants have been used in fish tanks and ponds. Those caught selling the plants could face fines of up to $500 a day.

A spokesman for the DNR said the new rules will in no way stop the problem, but it may slow the spread of the weeds until someone figures out how to stop them from choking the state's waterways.