OHIOPYLE, Pa. -- Like nature, government bureaucracies move slowly, unpredictably and often in sudden starts and stops.
So when the invasive didymo algae was confirmed in the Delaware River in 2007 -- with no direct threat to humans other than potentially throwing a wet blanket, literally, over the state's $1.6 billion sport fishing industry -- people in the know really didn't expect Harrisburg to snap to attention and fix the problem.
By 2012, Pennsylvania agencies were educating the public about Didymosphenia geminata's tendency to partially smother creek and river bottoms, and transport easily on boats, boots and machinery. But by then the cold-water algae had spread in pockets across some 100 miles of the Delaware.
In May, didymo , often called "rock snot" because of its mucous-like texture, was confirmed in the Youghiogheny River at Ohiopyle within an easy drive of all the trout fishing in the Laurel Highlands. The Fish and Boat Commission put up some informational signs, and Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar asking for federal assistance in curbing its spread. U.S. Fish and Wildlife is aware of the problem, but hasn't taken action.
Unlike nature and government, however, a motivated individual can take quick, decisive action and might actually make a difference.
In recent weeks the Chestnut Ridge chapter of Trout Unlimited donated five gear-wash stations to Ohiopyle State Park. Without waiting for instructions from TU's national headquarters or state council, chapter president Scott Hoffman just did it. He said the goal is to encourage anglers and boaters to kill the invisible didymo cells as they leave the river.
"I think it speaks to TU's mission to protect and enhance coldwater fisheries," Hoffman said. "[The didymo] is an attack on areas where we fish. It's unsightly and it depresses the macro-invertebrates."
A local Lowe's home improvement center donated pressure-treated lumber, and a chapter member donated the printing of plastic informational signs mounted on the gear-wash stations. Hoffman built them himself. Total cost per station: $50 to $60.
"The invasive alga known as didymo or rock snot has infected the Youghiogheny River and some area waters," read the signs. "Didymo blankets stream bottoms and smothers aquatic life. Help prevent the spread of didymo by taking the following simple steps each time you enter and leave the water. Keep the surrounding waterways safe."
The signs encourage anglers to "take 60 seconds now to protect your river" by soaking gear in a tub filled with a saltwater solution and scrubbing off dirt and debris with a brush hanging conveniently from a bar that anglers may hold to keep their balance.
"Sixty seconds of exposure kills didymo," the signs read. "To wash your gear at home scrub items in 140-degree water with commercial dish detergent or soak in a 2.5 percent to 5 percent solution of bleach with water for 10 minutes."
Staff from Ohiopyle State Park placed the five gear-wash stations on Tuesday and will periodically dump and replenish the brine. The stations are located near the bridges in Confluence, at the Ramcat launch area, at the Middle Yough take-out, at Fern Cliff Trail and at the top parking lot at the Meadow Run access area.
Didymo was confirmed in May in the pool below the Ohiopyle falls, an area frequented by boaters more than anglers. Since then, however, it's been found in areas of the Yough that are heavily fished.
"It seems heaviest by the bridges in Confluence," said Stacie Hall, assistant manager of Ohiopyle State Park. "That leads me to believe that it may have come from fishermen, but based on the ecology of didymo and the ecosystem on the Youghiogheny, it's hard to say."
Hoffman got the gear-wash station design from Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which is combating didymo contamination at Big Gunpowder Falls north of Baltimore and the lower Savage River in western Maryland. Months ago it was confirmed at Big Hunting Creek in the central part of the state. Maryland bans the use of felt soles on wading boots, which are thought to easily transport didymo cells was well as whirling disease and other contagions.
Ron Klauda, a Maryland DNR aquatic biologist, monitors didymo-infected waterways once a month. Prone to cyclical growth patterns, the algae hasn't spread much in the waterways where it was discovered four years ago, but it leapfrogged to popular fishing waters.
"It's not a rapid dispersal," Klauda said. "It seems like once it's established in a site, it fluctuates but stays there, but it's not going away. We're not sure how long it's going to stay."
Didymo is native to high-latitude boreal climates in North America, Eurasia and Siberia. Like many invasives, it spreads rapidly when populating new areas with no natural controls.
Klauda said anglers are using the Maryland gear-wash basins, but there's been no study to rate the stations' effectiveness in curbing the algae's spread.
"Our philosophy was we couldn't not do something," he said. "We had to make some management decision about what would help keep it from spreading. We wanted to let anglers know they could help us out. It remains to be seen if it's helping, but in four years [didymo] has shown up in three river systems. We feel bad about that, but it could be worse."
Pennsylvania moved quickly to educate anglers, and to some degree boaters, about the spread of didymo, but hasn't taken further actions. Fish and Boat officials said the agency is reluctant to ban felt soles on wading boots while other viable modes of didymo transportation including shoelaces, ropes and fabrics on boats and industrial machinery remain unregulated.
Eric Levis, spokesman for the Fish and Boat Commission, said the agency's policy is to provide didymo education through on-site signs, passages in the regulation summary books and posted on its website, and inserts in boating registration renewal mailings.
"We discussed the feasibility of wash stations, but ruled that out because of the potential costs and the practical matters of keeping them filled and in good operating condition," said Levis. "Also, no studies have been done evaluating the effectiveness of cleaning stations, and some concerns have been raised about providing a location where aquatic invasive species could be concentrated and eventually be washed back into the system. Another issue staff raised was the proper disposal of the cleaning chemicals. Stations need to be designed so that those chemicals don't enter the system."
The slow mechanicians of government will turn slowly next year when a national conference on didymo will be held in New England.