Invasive plant still threatens Bayou St. John
Giant salvinia is back in Bayou St. John. The invasive aquatic fern is floating around in patches, sending a neighborhood band of salvinia fighters into action.
The group is planning a cleanup for June 15, a summer rendition of the Saturday salvinia-removal sessions it held in February — steadily working to stave off the plant threatening to choke the life out of the bayou.
“It was a huge community effort that was really amazing to see,” said Theryn Henkel, a plant ecologist with the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation who advised the ad hoc group of volunteers. “Sometimes when things like this happen, it’s about whose fault it is. For them, it was about, ‘How we can get together and take care of this problem.'”
The problem is Salvinia molesta, a Brazilian native brought into the U.S. in the 1990s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Invasive Species Information Center. It multiplies like mad, so that it quickly forms dense mats — as thick as 3 feet — that block sunlight, reduce oxygen levels and disrupt natural ecosystems.
“For humans, it is a problem for navigation,” Henkel said. “Ecologically, it shades out the water column. The plants can’t do photosynthesis, and the plants create the habitat for fish.”
Salvinia is most aggressive in states that border the Gulf of Mexico, LSU AgCenter literature notes, and has been plaguing Louisiana waterways since 1998, when it was spotted in Toledo Bend on the Texas border.
The alarm sounds
It appeared in Bayou St. John in late January and rapidly spread, alarming residents and anyone who is drawn to the bayou for fishing, kayaking, running, dog walking or drinking wine at sunset.
On Feb. 2, Faubourg St. John resident Maria Wickstrom took a morning walk on the bayou between Esplanade Avenue and Dumaine Street. She recognized giant salvinia on the water’s surface and knew of its dangers. So she sounded the alarm in a post on the neighborhood’s Nextdoor site.
It wasn’t the first sighting — WWL-TV ran a report on Jan. 29 — but it caught people’s attention. Over the course of 59 comments on the post, a group of motivated neighbors formulated a plan to manually pull the weed out of the water.
Officials were already alerted to the problem. While giving kayak tours of the bayou, Sara Howard and her husband Sonny Averett, owners of Kayak-Iti-Yat, noticed it on Jan. 26 and notified their contacts at City Park and the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, who notified other agencies and specialists.
On Feb. 5, about 15 experts and stakeholders met in the City Park board room to discuss the salvinia problem in Bayou St. John.
The group agreed on strategic spots to set up booms to corral and contain the plants. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the salvinia-control agency for the state’s waterways, then uses a three-pronged approach to battle the invasive weed: herbicide, salvinia-eating weevils, and manual and mechanical removal.
The weevils bred by the LSU AgCenter aren’t available in the winter. Massive manual removal is normally too costly and time-consuming, but the small army of neighborhood volunteers was already galvanized.
A cleanup session was scheduled set for Feb. 9, and Wildlife and Fisheries was set to begin spraying the plants with herbicide on Feb. 11, minutes from the meeting show.
Scooping up salvinia
A Facebook event page went up, calling on residents to bring kayaks, pitchforks, rakes, flat shovels, wheelbarrows and friends to the bayou on a Saturday morning. “If we do nothing we will have no paddling, no fishing … and definitely no help to our delicate drainage system!” read the plea on Facebook.
The specter of herbicide also loomed. “We like turtles. We like pelicans,” said volunteer Brooke Brown, who manages the Giant Salvinia Control Patrol page on Facebook. “And we don’t want to see them live in a bayou that has a bunch of herbicides in it.”
About 30 people showed up at the bayou on a cold Saturday morning with rakes, shovels and only a vague idea of what to do, Brown said, but they soon figured it out.
Friends of Bayou St. John, the group that puts on Bayou Boogaloo, had hired Cuyler Boad of Innovative Aquatic Solutions, who also gave the community a discount to mechanically remove plants with his boat, the Hyacinth Hippo. After the money ran out and salvinia remained, Boad donated his services.
The Hyacinth Hippo and the volunteers pulled a whopping 50 tons of the weed out of the bayou, creating a mountain at Fillmore Avenue. The city’s Department of Sanitation in the next week hauled it off in three dump-truck loads, according to records maintained by Howard of Kayak-Iti-Yat.
The job wasn’t done — and the stragglers left behind were multiplying quickly. But Wildlife and Fisheries officials — impressed by the community effort — held off on spraying.
The Saturday sessions continued through the Carnival season, with a break on Endymion Saturday. The neighborhood volunteers got a boost from the United Saints Recovery Project, a local nonprofit that sent five different groups of college students from across the country, along with tools and site managers, to Bayou St. John.
The spring-break volunteers scooped up salvinia that had washed up to the banks, a result of the Louisiana Flood Protection Authority keeping the bayou’s water low to aid the cleanup. They continued through March, after the Saturday sessions ended.
“They were amazing. Once they got over the initial ‘ick’ factor, they were totally into it,” Brown said of the United Saints. “One thing that Cuyler (Boad) could not do was detail along the banks.”
By the time the winter cleanup was over, the city had picked up another 80 tons of dried salvinia. And volunteers had donated a total 1,183 hours, Howard’s data shows.
Public and private organizations chipped in as well. City Park paid the composting fees for three loads of salvinia, lent wheelbarrows and other equipment, and contained the drying piles of salvinia with stakes and mesh. Two companies donated booms; others gave money.
A food truck, the American Road Show Catering Co., showed up to feed about 50 volunteers. A neighbor brought pizzas to the group. The Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral and homeowners along the bayou opened their doors to provide bathrooms to the volunteers.
“That’s what is so great about New Orleans,” Howard said of the collaborative effort. “It gets so expensive and the infrastructure is so terrible, and you think, ‘Why do I live here?’ This tells me why.”
‘An ongoing endeavor’
On March 8, after waiting for manual removal and then for winter winds to die down, Wildlife and Fisheries sprayed in areas between Interstate 610 and Robert E. Lee Boulevard. Because it had less to spray, it could use Clipper, an herbicide considered safer — it has fewer federal restrictions — than the less-expensive Diquat it normally uses.
“By the time they got to spray, the community had come together and did so well that they didn’t have to kill a huge ton of it at once,” said Henkel of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation.
That did not end the salvinia problem, however. “These plants will never be eradicated. They can only be managed,” Howard said. “They are so aggressive and so small, and they hide among the reeds. This will be an ongoing endeavor.”
She urges everyone who is on the bayou to keep their eye out for the salvinia and to pull it out of the water when they see it.
A group of eight volunteers continues to organize the ongoing battle against giant salvinia for the neighborhoods along the bayou. The effort has received help from the Nature Conservancy, a donation from Parkway Bakery and more, but the Salvinia Patrol needs volunteers to slog along the bayou during the heat of the summer. It’s important, they say.
“People might have the impression that the problem is taken care of,” Brown said. “But we can’t keep giving this amount of time and labor — we have jobs, we have families. If 50 people sign up for an hour of work, that will pay off exponentially in the future.”
The next Giant Salvinia Control Patrol session is Saturday, June 15. Volunteers are meeting at Deutsches Haus, 1700 Moss St., at 8 a.m. From there, organizers will dispatch groups to the locations along the bayou that need the most attention. See the Facebook page for information on how to prepare and what to bring.