Hughson resident Elias Ruiz is a teacher at Dutcher Middle School during the week, but on the weekends he can be found plunging into the Tuolumne River in full scuba gear.
Ruiz is a passionate fisher and hunter, but in recent years he has encountered a problem with excessive hyacinth, an invasive floating plant that often jams rivers and lakes because of its ability to double its mass in a matter of 10 days.
"It's probably one of the fastest growing aquatic plants in the world," said Ruiz, who has been diving underwater to address the threatening problem.
As an avid hunter and fisher Ruiz frequents the Tuolumne River year-round on his Feather Raft, a lightweight structure he designed to float steadily on water that won him a $2,500 prize in the Stanislaus County Innovation Challenge in 2014.
"After making the rafts and being on the river for some time I noticed the plant, but didn't know what it was," recalled Ruiz.
Hyacinth can grow up to 12 inches above the water, but its root structure under water is problematic too as the roots become interlocked. The large mesh growth is extremely heavy, though not sturdy enough to be stepped on.
"It sits there like a carpet," said Ruiz. "It makes like a road block, or a river block I should say."
The hyacinth blockage became more visible to Ruiz when he was driving on one of the bridges over the Tuolumne River and could see the aggressive plant's growth from an aerial perspective. He contacted the state Division of Boating and Waterway's Department of Aquatic Invasive Species but found out there was no funding allocated to combat the issue in the Tuolumne River. So, he promptly rented scuba gear and tried to settle the problem himself.
"I have scuba license and not a lot of people do so I figured I would see what I could do," said Ruiz.
Removing the hyacinth is not as simple as simply cutting it, though. It's dense and expansive, not to mention extremely heavy. So, Ruiz identified an area of the river with old pylons, or former wood beams that once supported a bridge. The pylons caused the hyacinth to block up behind it and create a wall, or snag point, that collects dead trees and other debris.
"So we move the pylons and get the logs out of the way, then we break up the hyacinth from there and push it down the river," explained Ruiz.
Ruiz has made four trips to do this, but he hasn't been alone. With three friends, one of which is a game warden for the Department of Fish and Game, Ruiz said the group has been able to remove roughly 80 percent of the blockage.
"We've put in about 36 man hours I'd say," said Ruiz.
While Ruiz was unsuccessful in finding funding sources for the growing hyacinth problem, he did receive some help from other locals. Since the Tuolumne River has limited areas where the public can enter the water, Lakewood Memorial granted Ruiz access on their private property to get as close to the problem area on the river as possible. After he told the Aquatic Dreams Scuba Center in Modesto what he was up to, they rented him gear for free so he only had to pay for the tanks which are the least expensive part.
On Sunday Ruiz will be returning to the Tuolumne River for what he hopes is his final hyacinth removal trip for a while.
"The hard work is done and this should clear it up for an undefined amount of time now that those pylons are gone. We shouldn't have this problem year after year," said Ruiz.
Those interested in volunteering to help Ruiz with the hyacinth problem or who want to report a problem area can join his Facebook group titled Tuolumne River AIS.