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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Lawmakers study threat from milfoil

SANDPOINT – Idaho lawmakers have been asked to use part of an unexpectedly large budget surplus to attack an aquatic weed that’s fouling the state’s waters.

Also a plague in Washington waters like the Pend Oreille River, exotic Eurasian milfoil forms dense, floating mats that are thick enough in some cases to be walked across on snowshoes, Matt Voile, noxious weed program manager with Idaho’s Department of Agriculture, told members of the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. The group began three days of meetings here Monday.

In other states, swimmers have become entangled in the weeds and drowned. Serious injuries can also occur when motorboats or water skiers hit the dense weeds.

A fragment of the weed not much longer than an eyelash can become implanted in lake bottoms – after hitching a ride on a boat propeller or even a water ski blade – and quickly grow to 30 feet. So the weed spreads easily from one lake to another.

The weed cannot grow in water too deep for sunlight to reach the bottom, but because North Idaho’s lakes are so clear, “we have the potential for tremendous impact with this plant,” Voile said.

It already infests 2,500 acres in Lake Pend Oreille, many of Hayden Lake’s bays and the southern end of Lake Coeur d’Alene.

Ridding lakes of the weed has proven impossible in Washington and other states, and controlling it is expensive and time-consuming. In some places, divers use vacuum devices capable of suctioning even the tiniest bits of the weed. Floating combines have been used. Lake bottoms have even been covered with black plastic weed prevention mats, Voile said. It all comes at a cost of at least $1,000 per acre.

Currently, Idaho devotes about $130,000 to combat milfoil – about 8 percent of the total $1.6 million weed-fighting budget. There are 35 other noxious weeds that threaten the state’s forests and rangelands, Voile said. The Department of Agriculture wants a $100,000 increase for the 2007 fiscal year. Additional help might come from extra federal grants.

That money would come from a state budget that is expected to have a $214 million budget surplus – more than twice what officials had predicted, thanks to the hyper real estate market, said Legislative Budget Director Jeff Youtz.

“We knew it would be good. We were still a little surprised at how good it ended up,” Youtz told lawmakers at the meeting.

Although the near future looks golden, lawmakers were warned by Youtz that spending demands for prisons and Medicaid could rapidly siphon away the extra money. Within 15 years, spending on Medicaid alone will surpass the total devoted to public schools in Idaho, Youtz said.

So while lawmakers now dealing with a surplus and requests for more spending will face tougher issues several years from now, predicted the committee’s chairman, Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert.

“That is going to be a real sobering experience,” he said.