Editor’s Notebook: Dreading The Dreissenids. What Will It Take To Keep Invasive Mussels Out Of The Basin?

That destructive, invasive zebra and quagga mussels – dreissenids — have not found a new home in the Columbia River basin is a success story.

So far.

Knowing the nightmare scenario if the mussels take hold and spread, the region is on high alert.

“Dreissenids threaten the diversity and abundance of native species, ecological processes, and natural resources as well as commercial, agricultural, aquaculture, cultural, and recreational activities,” the Corps says in a draft Finding of No Significant Impact and a draft environmental assessment for an aquatic invasive mussel control rapid response plan.

“Their rapid reproduction, prodigious capacity to filter the water, and biofouling behavior would permanently harm the region’s aquatic ecosystems and create costly and logistically difficult maintenance concerns throughout the region’s waterways.”

The Corps proposes to assist the states to establish and execute rapid response measures if the mussels are discovered in the Columbia River basin, or anywhere within the four states.

“The proposed action is needed because the risk of water bodies in the CRB being infected is high and the introduction and establishment of zebra or quagga mussels has the potential to cause billions of dollars in economic damage and untold damage to the ecosystem and the species dependent upon it,” says the Corps in a not so understated way.

A well-funded regional rapid response plan is of the utmost necessity and the Corps should be lauded for moving forward on this before the fact, rather than after detection.

A rapid response plan is needed because pretending that the mussels won’t someday break through the current bulwark of protective actions would be naïve. Though it’s no fun to contemplate, the odds are likely pretty decent that at some point we will hear the news of invasive mussels being found in a Columbia River basin waterway, mainstem or otherwise.

Allowing them to spread and degradate aquatic ecosystems would obviously be a serious blow to basin salmon and steelhead recovery, and shockingly expensive to combat, with no guarantee of success.

Indeed, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s Independent Economic Advisory Board in an earlier report said that “The potential costs, especially in the Snake River Basin, would likely involve habitat replacement, reduced chances for recovery of protected-status species, an increased chance of listing for other species, increased costs of compliance with endangered species laws, and reduced populations of other economically important species including game fish. We assume that existing policies would require that anadromous fish and rare species populations be returned to their without-mussel status. The cost of this compensation is unknown, but could be tens to hundreds of millions of dollars annually.”

Therefore, an intense battle is currently being waged to defend the basin, with Montana on the front lines.

Montana is the only one of four Northwest states that has detected mussels in water bodies. That was in the Tiber and Canyon Ferry reservoirs east of the Continental Divide three years ago. There have been no further detections since.

None found in waterbodies, that is. Plenty have been found on boats at watercraft inspection stations.

So far this summer, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and partner agencies have conducted more than 52,000 watercraft inspections – with more than 7,000 of those happening over the Fourth of July weekend. To date, 13 vessels with zebra or quagga mussels have been intercepted, FWP reported last week. That’s only this boating season so far, and only in one state.

Montana and the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes operate multiple watercraft inspection stations, an expansion aided by Corps funding. Many operate 16 hours a day. That still leaves another 8 hours where a mussel-infested boat can slip through.

Two weeks ago, state and tribal officials gave a presentation to the Council in which they said challenges remain to ensure mussels don’t break the barrier. They noted that 24-hour a day permanent inspection stations would substantially increase the intercept rate, and suggested the Bonneville Power Administration help fund such efforts.  (The Council’s Fish and Wildlife Program says “BPA and other federal agencies should assist the Northwest states’ efforts to prevent the establishment of quagga and zebra mussels.”)

And that’s just Montana. Cost-sharing with the Corps, other states have also increased watercraft inspections.  But infested boats could be headed our way on such paths as I-5, 97, 395, I-84, I-15, 93, 101.

Without permanent 24-hour stations, surely the Columbia River basin remains seriously exposed to a dirty boat slipping through and launched off the trailer in a basin waterway.

As the Corps says in its proposed rapid response plan, “the potential is high for dreissenid invasion in the four state area, as recreational watercraft from across the country transport invasive species into other waterbodies.”

Policymakers know the public cost of expanding the number and operational hours of watercraft inspection stations is far less than the cost of dealing with the disaster of a widespread mussel infestation.

Thanks to collaboration and cost-sharing, the Northwest remains the only region of the United States not dealing with these imported Black Sea mussels. Diligence must be maintained at all times to keep that story a success.

— Bill Crampton, Editor, billcrampton@bendcable.com

P.S. Want a sense of how mussels invade? Montana reports: “In AIS news from our neighbors, mussels have jumped more than 100 miles upstream in the Missouri River: Lake Sharpe, S.D., is positive for zebra mussels. A new zebra mussel population was detected in Lake Ashtabula, N.D. Colorado is also seeing challenges with mussels on boats from Lake Powell.”

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EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK, July 18: REGION STILL SEARCHING FOR THAT SWEET SPOT OF COORDINATING, CONNECTING SALMON RECOVERY EFFORTS

EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK, July 11: SALMON, STEELHEAD WILL NEED PLENTY OF HELP TO SURVIVE REGIONAL CLIMATE WARMING

EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK, June 27: DON’T WAIT FOR MORE REPORTS TO GEAR UP FOR INTENSIVE PIKE SUPPRESSION, RAPID DETECTION

EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK, June 19 : SO HOW ARE COLUMBIA RIVER SALMON AND STEELHEAD DOING? STATUS REVIEWS SHOULD TELL US

EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK, June 12: WE NOW KNOW THE OCEAN HAS LIMITED CARRYING CAPACITY FOR SALMON, BUT WE DON’T KNOW THE TIPPING POINT

EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK, June 4: DRAFT EIS ALTERNATIVES SHOW BREADTH, SCOPE OF SALMON RECOVERY; YES, THE PIKE ARE COMING; BARBED, BARBLESS

EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK, May 16: WELCOME TO THE COLUMBIA BASIN BULLETIN’S NEW WEBSITE

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