Idaho lawmaker urges public to help protect waterways from mussel invasion

 Removed on April 25th, 2016.  Mussels where attached to a used, recently-purchased vessel which was sold at auction in Las Vegas. 
Mussel size compared to a U.S. dime. Officials remove these mussels on April 25, 2016 from a boat sold at auction in Las Vegas | Image Courtesy: Invasive Species of Idaho

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — At the start of boating season, an Idaho lawmaker is warning locals and out-of-state visitors to do their part in preventing invasive mussel species infesting Idaho’s waterways.

“Believe it or not, Russia and Ukraine do pose a big threat to Idaho – the Zebra and Quagga mussels trace their origins to waterways in those countries,” Sen. Michelle Stennett said. “Over the past few decades, they have made their way to the United States via overseas cargo ships. They first surfaced in the Great Lakes and have steadily moved West.”

While invasive species such as zebra mussels did originate in international waters, it’s other states that now pose a risk to Idaho. As boats come from across the country to enjoy the natural wonders of the Gem State, these species are stowing away and hitching a ride to Idaho’s waterways. This year, border inspection stations have already discovered 31 infected boats during the over 29,000 inspections, pushing the number of infected boats intercepted since 2009 to over 200.

“Diligent border inspections and an informed, cooperative public are critical to keeping this vast boundary protected from these invaders,” Sen. Stennett said. “Lake Mead in Nevada and Lakes Powell and Havasu in Arizona are already infested. Boaters who travel to those waters pick up invasive species in their bilge water, or the mussels attach directly to the boats.  Once that happens, those boats can transport the mussels to other states (like Idaho).”

Stowaway States

Arizona waters aren’t the only culprit though. According to the same data set, inspectors have found boats from Nevada, Texas and neighboring state Utah with the tiny invasive species tagging along. Capturing these infected watercrafts is vital lawmakers and state officials say as the cost of combating an actual mussel infestations in Idaho’s waterways could average $90 million a year. According to the Department of the Interior, other states have seen annual costs reach as much as $500 million a year.

“Unintentionally introduced into the Great Lakes through ballast water in the 1980s, the mussels proved highly invasive by clogging water supply pipes and dramatically changing the local environment,” according to a report by the Department of the Interior. “The regional cost to industry and the public is estimated at $500 million annually.”

One such examples of the risks mussel infestation sits in Sen. Stennett’s office: an Idaho license plate completely overwhelmed by mussel growth.

An Idaho license plate covered in muscles. Sen. Stennett keeps the plate in her office as a reminder of how destructive the invasive species can be. | Image Courtesy: Senator Michelle Stennett

“These mussels are very small, but they multiply at a breath-taking rate,” Sen. Stennett. “They can attach themselves to just about anything – dams, hydroelectric gears, irrigation systems. They can destroy beaches and shorelines. If you fish, farm or boat, you are a potential target of these invasive species.”

The State of California warned it’s residents about the “breath-taking rate” of mussel growth. According to the State of California’s Don’t Move a Mussel initiative, one female mussel alone can make a devastating impact.

“It wouldn’t take long for the mussels to get established once they arrive,” according to the State of California. “Each female can produce about 1 million eggs per year.”

Mussel reproduction rates aren’t the only things concerning lawmakers and experts. In the same initiative by the State of California, the microscopic size of young mussels can make them almost imperceptible to unknowing boaters, fisherman and other water-goers.

“At their youngest stage, the invasive mussels are the size of a grain of sand,” according to the State of California. “At their largest they are the size of your thumbnail. They are often brought in on boats and other recreational water toys (e.g. kayaks). But they can also come in on hipwaders, fishing tackle boxes, life jackets and other objects that have spent time in infested waters.”

Prevention Strategies

Up to this point, Idaho has employed an aggressive prevention strategy. Twenty-seven inspection stations dot the state from Albeni Falls to Henry’s Lake, and involve an intensive process to detect potential mussel infestations.

“High-risk inspections are intense and include a thorough inspection of the exterior and interior parts of the boat,” according to the State of Idaho. “The inspection includes a thorough and complete visual and tactile inspection of all portions of the boat, including compartments, bilge, trailer and any equipment, gear, ropes or anchors.”

Inspectors examine a boat at an inspection station. Workers must determine whether the incoming watercraft is carrying any invasive species or plants, and conduct a roadside “hotwash,” in the event such materials are found | Image Courtesy: Invasive Species of Idaho

Last year, the Idaho Legislature approved a $3 million budget increase for the Department of Agriculture, primarily to fund boat inspection stations. But, Sen. Stennett says the increased state funding isn’t enough.

“These inspectors can only do so much with the funding in place,” Sen. Stennett said. “The federal government needs to step up and take charge of foreign waterways where the mussels are already present…it would be more effective to inspect boats at the source. Let’s not forget the feds have jurisdiction over Lakes Mead, Powell and Havasu, three of the most mussel-infested waterways in the West. Every boat coming out of those contaminated waterways should be inspected before they leave the shore – let alone cross into another state.”

Among the highest risk factors inspectors look for include boats that have been in mussel-infested states within the last 30 days, watercraft coming from other states, boats with lots of dirt, grime or slime below the waterline and boats with standing water onboard, according to the State of Idaho’s Invasive Species of Idaho webpage.

If any of the mussels or other invasive species are discovered, inspectors can conduct a roadside “hotwash,” of the watercraft to ensure the boat doesn’t infect Idaho waters.

Having Fun While Staying Safe

While the threat of mussel infestations in Idaho’s water remains a very real and present threat, Sen. Stennett also wants people to remember to have fun this season. Being aware and actively working to prevent mussels from stowing away in watercraft is part of the process and ensures everyone has a safe and fun summer.

“Summer boating in Idaho is a generations-long tradition,” Sen. Stennett said. “Please have fun with it.  But please understand the threat Idaho faces and support our border inspectors. You don’t want to make the news as the person who brought invasive species into Idaho.”