Tenn. Senator Studies New Law to Manage Aquatic Vegetation on Area Lakes

Senator Mike Bell (R, TN Dist. 9) recently convened a sub-committee specifically to hold hearings to study and address the aquatic vegetation issue on area lakes. (TN Legislative Screen Grab)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Most fishermen just call it “grass.” Others refer to it as “milfoil” (although that is just one species of many). Scientific types called it “aquatic vegetation,” while most dock owners refer to it as “weeds” (or other names we can’t publish here).

Whatever you call it, the submergent (underwater) aquatic vegetation growing on area lakes has been the subject of never-ending controversy since it first appeared in the late 1970’s. There have been boon & bust cycles for the aquatic vegetation since then for a variety of reasons. But currently Chickamauga and Watts Bar lakes seem to be in a boon cycle.

Fisheries biologists and fishermen love it. They insist it provides greatly enhanced habitat for fish and is one of several factors that has led to Chickamauga being named one of the best bass fishing lakes in the nation. Meanwhile lakeshore land and dock owners despise it. Many say they are forced to pay thousands of dollars to private companies to keep their docks clear of vegetation, otherwise they would be useless.

You can bet, however, whenever those boats appear spraying herbicides in the water the fishermen who witness it are going to raise all manner of “heck.” The spraying is all perfectly legal provided landowners obtain proper permits.

Sen. Mike Bell is listening to both sides but openly admits he hears a lot from the fishing side since he is an avid hunter and fisherman himself. (TN Legislative Screen Grab)

“I feel like I’ve grabbed hold of a tar baby. I’ve got constituents on both sides of the issue,” said Senator Mike Bell (R, District 9 including Bradley, McMinn, Meigs, Monroe and Polk Counties).

Sen. Bell has established a group called the “Aquatic Spraying Study Committee,” a sub-committee of the Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. He recently held a senate hearing with testimony from a variety of interested parties.

“I’ve heard from a number of constituents on this issue” said Sen. Bell. “Property owners see the aquatic vegetation as a nuisance. I’ve heard fishermen say I don’t want a single drop of herbicide in the water.”

Sen. Bell is listening to both sides but openly admits he hears a lot from the fishing side. He is an avid hunter and fisherman himself. And his son fished on the national championship bass team for Bryan College.

Sen. Bell says his goal is to draft legislation for the upcoming session to better manage the aquatic spraying.

“I’m going to draft something,” said Sen. Bell. “What’s going on in the water right now is the equivalent of me spraying Roundup in a state park.”

Sen. Bell understands there is a strict permitting process for applying aquatic herbicides, governed by the Tennessee Dept. of Environment & Conservation. He feels, however, there are not enough guidelines to identify clear boundaries that commercial sprayers must adhere to. He is also concerned that there is not enough transparency in the morass of bureaucracy and red tape involved in the permitting process.

During the recent hearing Sen. Bell and others listened to testimony from a number of interested parties including:

– Timothy Joseph, PHD with the Watts Bar Ecology & Fishery Council (primarily representing landowner interests)
– Troy Goldsby, owner of Aqua Services, Inc. (a private contractor hired to spray herbicides for lakeshore landowners)
– Mike Butler, CEO of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation
– Frank Fiss, Chief of Fisheries for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
– Bucky Edmondson, Director of TVA Natural Resources
– Wesley Strader, professional bass angler from Rhea County, Tenn.
– Dennis Tumlin, Executive Director of Rhea County Economic & Community Development and brainchild of the FishDayton.com marketing effort

You can watch the entire two hours of testimony here.


– Timothy Joseph, PHD with the Watts Bar Ecology & Fishery Council (primarily represented landowner interests)

Joseph testified that, “A lake should look like a lake. It shouldn’t look like a lawn.”

Dr. Timothy Joseph said that if aquatic vegetation covers more than 40 percent of the bottom in an area, it actually destroys the area for fish and bottom-dwelling organisms.

Joseph testified that extensive research has shown that densely packed aquatic vegetation (anything above 40 percent bottom coverage) actually reduces a lake’s ability to improve fishing. He says in densely packed mats of aquatic vegetation, the habitat for fish and bottom-dwelling organisms is eliminated.

“If it were twenty or thirty percent coverage I would say, ‘Great,” he told senators. “But that’s not what happens. It turns into a shag carpet.”

– Troy Goldsby, owner of Aqua Services, Inc. (private contractor hired to spray herbicides for lakeshore landowners)

Goldsby said outside of Florida, his is one of the largest aquatic control businesses in the Southeast. He and his employees are licensed and certified by the Tennessee Dept. of Agriculture.

He testified that aquatic herbicides have absolutely no affect on humans. Goldsby said he is well-aware that fishermen often complain that his company applies herbicides to huge expanses of the lake but insists that is never the case.

He said the permits many landowners receive do allow up to a maximum treatment of 80 acres. But he said, “Nobody is going to treat 80 acres. The product (spray) cost for that on the low end would cost in the vicinity of $200,000. In general our applications are a half-acre.”

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– Mike Butler, CEO of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation

Butler testified that there shouldn’t be a desire to eliminate aquatic vegetation spraying.

“We have to keep all the tools in the toolbox,” he said.

However he said there needs to be more disclosure and transparency in the permitting and spraying process.

“We really don’t know what is going on in the reservoir,” he said. “We have responsible applicators and there’s nothing illegal about that. But what if you have sixty of those?”

Butler said there needs to be an online notification process where the public can easily access and see exactly who is spraying, where they are spraying and what they are spraying.

“It’s our understanding that [the companies] have to keep the records but they don’t have to turn them in,” said Butler. “When we don’t have that kind of information it is really hard to develop public policies. We need folks like Aqua Services. They are important to the management solution. Our concern is that we don’t know enough about what is going on.”

Frank Fiss, Chief of Fisheries for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and Bucky Edmondson, Director of TVA Natural Resources, confirmed some basic information senators already knew. Fiss said it was their belief that aquatic vegetation in general is beneficial for fisheries management.

– Wesley Strader, professional bass angler from Rhea County, Tenn.

Last year Strader was on the lake and saw boats spraying herbicide. He went live on Facebook and his resulting video went viral, creating a firestorm of controversy among fishermen. After being contacted by the applicator Strader posted a follow-up video retracting or clarifying some of the information he posted initially.

Strader began his testimony saying he has been a professional fisherman for 21 years and that, “I’m a lot better talking in front of fishermen than I am senators and stuff.”

Strader countered Joseph’s testimony about there being overly dense mats of vegetation on local lakes.

“Chickamauga and Watts Bar lakes have an annual drawdown (lowering of the water levels) which kills the grass every year,” he said.

He believes that the most productive “littoral” (shallow water) zones are replenished every year. He also told senators he is “scared of any chemical in drinking water” and would like to see that question studied more.

“I have caught thousands and thousands of bass in heavy vegetative mats,” said Strader, who has won more than $2 million dollars in bass tournaments. “My education may not be as embellished on paper as others but I’ve slept, lived and breathed with the wildlife on the Tennessee River. This was my training grounds. I have over two million reasons why I know what I’m talking about.”

– Dennis Tumlin, Executive Director of Rhea County Economic & Community Development and brainchild of the FishDayton.com marketing effort

Tumlin was one of the government leaders who spearheaded the FishDayton.com marketing effort in Rhea County, a county that had the highest unemployment rate in the state.

“Our tourism is driven by Lake Chickamauga,” he told senators. “It’s bass fishermen. It’s a niche market and we’re going specifically after the tournament bass fishermen.”

He says since they began the effort in 2014 to promote Dayton as “#BassTown,” they have hosted 150 bass tournaments on Chickamauga Lake. He says the effort has generated a wealth of new business, jobs and millions in additional sales and hotel tax dollars for the economically depressed area.

In the End

A few days later, following the formal hearing Sen. Bell remained insistent that he will be drafting a bill to address the aquatic spraying issue.

“I like the suggestion that there be some sort of public notification,” he said. “I also think we need to come up with some sort of boundary. I’m looking at, by legislation, creating some sort of boundary to an area the landowner can treat. There’s nothing by law that establishes such a boundary.”

He says he intends to draft the bill so that Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officers are the enforcing authority. He knows he must walk a fine line because lakeshore landowners, also his constituents, deserve to have their needs addressed as well.

“It’s going to be a chore threading that needle,” he admits. “But yes, I want to have something drafted by January. No question.”

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  1. until the operators of the spraying operations can explain why their vehicles are labeled “Poison” and “Corrosive” and PROVE the chemicals arent harmful to wildlife; all spraying should be suspended. something doesnt add up

  2. I feel it necessary to clarify the misrepresentations and inaccuracies in this summary.

    Referring to Invasive plants: “Fisheries biologists and fishermen love it.” This statement is blatantly untrue. Numerous Professional Fisherman are outspoken and stand up against invasive plants as I showed in my presentation. Too, I will state unequivocally that there is not a single Masters or PhD Fisheries Biologist that will state dense invasive aquatic plant growths benefit the fisheries or the ecology of a littoral zone. I provided the committee with a Corps of Engineers compilation of hundreds of scientific investigations by fisheries biologists and limnologists into the impact of dense invasive plants growth and the fisheries performed in over 300 lakes. The studies show conclusively/prove that dense vegetation seriously harms the fishery and ecology of the lake. This is science, not conjecture. It seems science has no role in this issue when the correct solution is to use science, especially when differences exist. What someone “feels” or “believes” with no facts or data to support the belief, is not how important decisions should be made. Factual knowledge/data/information not emotions, should be the determining factors.

    “Frank Fiss, Chief of Fisheries for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency said it was their belief that aquatic vegetation in general is beneficial for fisheries management.” He is absolutely right, “Aquatic Vegetation” is indeed beneficial, I explained this in my PowerPoint presentation. He was NOT talking about dense mats of Invasive Aquatic Plants. The article makes it appear that he supports dense growths of invasive aquatic plants in our lakes. This was taken totally out of context.

    Thanks for the opportunity to clarify your article.
    Timothy Joseph, PhD, Fisheries Biologist

  3. You don;t have to worry about dock owners spraying near as much as TVA. When they spray they kill all vegetation. We’ve seen it on Melton Hill several years ago and those lakes on down the chain. They sprayed Lake Gunterville when it was the hottest fishery in the country and it killed it dead. When they spray it take 25 or more years to recover. Just ask the folks around Gunterville, it’s just started to recover a few years back. The power entity sprayed ST. John’s River system back in the 90’s and at the time it was the number one bass water in the country. Killed it dead. Killing equatics in never good for fish populations period.

  4. Allow me one more reply, then I’m done. When individuals make statements about what they think and believe, I have no doubt they do “believe” what they are saying. But one can say “anything” as if it is fact. Without data, studies, or research to support a claim/belief, it is just that, a belief. So many are speaking out for the invasive species when they have absolutely no solid science or data or studies to support their claims. Important issues should never be a “He believes – She believes” battle, for all that is believed or claimed is simply of no consequence and certainly is not valid without data/science/studies backing up what their belief.

    If invasive aquatic plants improve the fishery and help the fish, then why don’t the best fishing lakes in the country bring the invasive plants in to improve their fishery? Lakes throughout the U.S. are spending millions to protect the fishery and ecology by trying to control invasive aquatic plant spread because they KNOW the dense mats are destroying the fishery and the ecology. Why is no one trying to protect kudzu, zebra mussels, silver carp or any other invasive species? I’ll tell you why. It’s because they all work to destroy the natural ecosystem, and everyone knows that.

    Here’s a truth that only an uneducated individual would not understand or agree with. “There is nothing better than a natural ecosystem.” Natural lakes and forests and grasslands are a product of millions of years of nature doing its job. Invasive species, terrestrial or aquatic, NEVER belong in a natural ecosystem and NEVER improve the natural state—EVER. Ideally, all our lakes, rivers, and forests would be as nature meant them to be, with “native” species in their “natural” state.

    Anyone that believes an invasive species is a good thing simply rejects ecological facts and truths. You can argue all you want, and make as many statements of your “beliefs” and what you “think” as you wish, but if you can’t support them with actual facts, science, or valid studies, you are merely speculating. If two people have opposite “Beliefs” which one is correct? Obvious. The one who had factual information and data to support their belief is correct. If you don’t understand this, well, nothing more can be said. Too, natural ecosystems don’t react overnight, ecological changes take time. So, stating fishing was great, but then it was bad, and blame it on a “belief” simply holds no water. Show the facts and data for what you believe to be true, please, otherwise, don’t speculate, for I doubt you’re an expert. If you are, state your expertise and show the data to support your claims.

    I am amazed at how easily intelligent people disregard science over mere beliefs and speculations. Case-in-point: I saw on the news recently that there are a large number of folks who truly believe the earth is flat, and they explained it. Everything they said was total speculation and belief, none of it factual data. Well, to them the earth is flat and no science will change their minds. This is much the same as believing that a huge mat of Hydrilla is really great for the fishery and ecology—pure belief and absolutely wrong. But just as I can and did provide hundreds of studies over 5-decades of research on over 300 freshwater lakes that prove dense vegetation destroys the fishery and ecology, the science can’t compete with a “belief.” Amazing!
    Thanks for the opportunity to “try” to explain, even though it was a waste of time. What ever happened to being “open minded?” I think it was destroyed by Hydrilla.

  5. I live near TVA property on one of the above mentioned lakes. There is quite a bit of garbage that gets hung up in the small inlet on the TVA property. Two questions: 1. If TVA is so concerned about the aquatic vegetation being a problem, why aren’t they cleaning up the garbage on their own property. And 2. Where is all that garbage coming from? Fisherman and other recreational lake enthusiasts, please take note of this.


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