The Northwest needs enforcement muscle to ward off a potentially devastating infestation of mollusks.
Invasive quagga and zebra mussels are adept at clinging to any form of marine transportation before hopping off at a new watery home and quickly trashing the place. Quagga mussels are indigenous to Eastern Europe, but some hitched a ride to the Great Lakes via cargo ship in the 1980s. From there, they’ve found their way west, with a particular fondness for Lake Mead, which straddles the Arizona-Nevada border. From 2007 to today, the population of these extremely amorous bivalves has spread tenfold in the massive reservoir formed by Hoover Dam. At present, the lake is home to trillions of quagga.
Because quagga in the larval stage are invisible, eradicating them is probably impossible. Much like with a highly communicable disease, the only hope now is containment.
Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Oregon are the only states that have been spared, but it’s not for a lack of trying. Forty-one mussel-bound boats have been stopped by Idaho border inspectors so far this year. In all of 2009, there were only three. Without more help from Nevada and the federal government, many fear an infiltration is inevitable.
The threat to the Columbia River Basin is real. The mussels can clog irrigation, dam pipes and kill fisheries by robbing them of nutrients. Because the mollusks act as filters that clarify the water, they allow in more sunlight, which encourages the spread of toxic algae blooms.
Communities in the eastern United States have spent billions of dollars combating the problem. The Great Lakes region has watched numerous species die off, and the fishing industry has suffered large losses. Lake Mead might be hopelessly “poisoned” at this point, but it’s not too late for the Northwest.
Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, notes that many Northwest residents keep their boats at Lake Mead for the winter and then haul them north for the summer. He and U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson have fought to secure $1 million to address the problem. However, Lake Mead officials have chosen to spend these federal dollars on outreach and education. That is needed, but it’s hardly enough.
Boaters should be forced to clean and dry their boats before depositing them into different waters. That could mean a simple hosing down by a day-use boater or a more extensive pressure wash by those whose boats have been docked for a longer period of time. Inspections at the borders are also critical, but more help is needed at the source of the problem.
Northwest researchers are trying to figure out ways to chemically coat metallic structures so that mussels can’t cling to pipes, according to the Vancouver Columbian. Later this year, they will test this treatment at Lake Mead.
But the best defense is to prevent the infestation in the first place, and that will take a coordinated effort involving state and federal officials and the cooperation of boat owners.