The kids at iWalk the Eno camp call it “the Godzilla weed.”
It’s taking over the riverbed of the Eno, choking out native species, and it’s headed downstream into our drinking water. It just needs a node, or small section about a half-inch long, to propagate.
And Eno River activists say there’s really nothing that can be done about the invasive aquatic plant.
“The river will be choked with hydrilla,” said Kurt Schlimme, director of conservation for the Eno River Association.
A native of Africa and possibly Australia, hydrilla has spread across the Southeast and could be the No. 2 threat facing the Eno, behind only chemical and bacterial pollution. When it gets into lakes and reservoirs, it clogs up intakes. It’s a threat to fishing in the Eno because it discourages populations of larger species of fish, providing hiding places for the smaller fish they eat, Schlimme said.
It also harbors bacteria that can cause human disease.
Visitors to the Festival for the Eno this week won’t see the full danger of hydrilla, Eno River State Park Superintendent Keith Nealson said as he pulled strands from the river recently as youngsters played nearby. The plant really takes over in August.
But if they look in the right spots, festival-goers at West Point on the Eno will see it waving beneath the surface as they enjoy a cool wade through the river.
“The people who don’t think it’s a problem will soon,” Nealson said.Just grows back
Brought to the U.S. as an ornamental plant, hydrilla first appeared in this country’s waters in Florida. In North Carolina, it entered the water at Big Lake at Umstead State Park in Raleigh in 1981, Schlimme said, and was first noticed in the Eno in 2008.
The iWalk camp experimented with having campers pull the hydrilla out, but it just grows back stronger from the nodes inevitably left behind. Carp will eat it, but introducing carp to the river wouldn’t help, Schlimme said, because the fish would just migrate downstream to Falls Lake.
Herbicide may be the only way to get rid of hydrilla, and that poses its own dangers.
Schlimme acknowledges that the river will keep flowing, despite the hydrilla problem, but the intruder poses a danger to recreational uses of the Eno, as well as to the habitat of the Eno’s prized Panhandle pebblesnail, a state endangered species.
Nealson takes the danger from hydrilla so seriously that any he pulls up he takes to an area away from any flowing water, leaves it in the sun until it is completely dried out, and then buries it.
Money raised at the festival won’t go toward eliminating hydrilla, but will go to help fight land-based invasive species, Schlimme said, such as Chinese privet, tree of heaven, Chinese wisteria and Japanese silk grass, species of ornamental plants that have taken hold near the riverbed.
Meanwhile, state, county and municipal officials are taking notice of the hydrilla problem, Schlimme said. “Folks are starting to come together and starting to talk about, ‘OK, what could be a solution?’” Wade in the water
The festival boasts music on four stages by more than 90 performers, including Tres Chicas, Kickin Grass, and the African American Dance Ensemble. And of course, there’s the chance to wade in a bit and get your feet wet if it gets too hot.
In its 32nd year, the festival raises varying amounts each year, depending mostly on the weather, Eno River Association executive director Robin Jacobs said. According to Jacobs, two years ago the festival raised $30,000, but last year only $10,000 – because the temperature was much hotter last year.
But, Jacobs said, the festival is not just about raising money, but also about raising awareness of the beauty of the Eno, as well as the threats it faces.
“Once they go, they really do start to care,” Jacobs says.
Schlimme says the appeal of the Eno is its location in near urbanized areas of Orange and Durham counties, which also contributes to the dangers it faces.
But, if a river can be fortunate, the Eno has been lucky enough to have its banks largely protected by park lands, as well as festival-supported conservation easements on private land, as it flows through counties long known for their concern for the environment.
“It’s sort of the river in their back yard,” Schlimme said.