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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Invasive mussels on the move toward Northwest

Idaho Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, shows an Idaho license plate that was suspended in the waters of Lake Mead for nine months; it's now encrusted with invasive quagga mussels. Anderson displayed the plate during and after his address to the Idaho Environmental Forum in Boise on Tuesday. (Betsy Russell)
BOISE - North Idaho Rep. Eric Anderson’s nightmare involves invasive quagga and zebra mussels slipping into Idaho’s waterways and altering the very nature of the state. “It scares me, it really does scare me,” said Anderson, R-Priest Lake. He was a featured speaker Tuesday at the Idaho Environmental Forum, a periodic forum on environmental issues facing the state, and he had a chilling warning: Only five states - Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Wyoming and Montana - have yet to be invaded by the tiny, fast-reproducing shellfish that chokes out native species and encrusts everything that touches the infested water. And more and more mussel-infested boats are being intercepted on the way to Idaho, with the vast majority coming from the Lake Mead area. Two more fouled boats were caught on I-90 in North Idaho on Friday, for a total of 41 so far this year - and the summer boating season is just beginning. If mussels show up in “any waterway in the Northwest here, it’s going to eventually end up in the Columbia and out to the ocean,” Anderson said. “We’re going to lose this whole system.” Lake Mead is a National Park Service-administered recreation area in Arizona and Nevada, site of Hoover Dam, that’s now heavily infested with mussels. To demonstrate the magnitude of the problem, Anderson hung Idaho license plates in the water there along a boat dock; he showed one off on Tuesday. After nine months in the water, it’s so encrusted with the thumbnail-sized mussels that the distinctive red, white and blue design of the license plate is almost entirely hidden, and the thin metal plate is now more than an inch thick, including its thick coating of dried mussels. A longer-lived infestation at the Great Lakes has resulted in the near extinction of the native clam population, a sharp reduction in plankton and major changes in fish and plant species, along with expensive problems for water intakes, boat motors and beaches. “The exact same thing will happen here,” Anderson warned. Anderson said he’s upset that the federal superintendent at Lake Mead hasn’t taken steps to require all boats leaving the infested lake to be decontaminated. A week ago, he fired off an angry letter to Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson. Simpson got $1 million allocated to the park service this year to fight mussels, but Anderson said the park service is targeting the money to “monitoring, prevention, outreach and research.” Anderson called those “things that we don’t need,” saying, “We need to clean boats.” He said, “This money is not going where it was intended.” Simpson’s funding bill for fiscal year 2012 specifically required the money to be used for “mandatory operational inspection and decontamination stations at federally managed or inter-jurisdictional water bodies considered to be of highest risk.” Spreading invasive species is a crime, Anderson noted. “They’re doing it - it’s a crime.” Simpson, an Idaho Republican, confronted parks officials about the issue in March when they spoke at a hearing at the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, which he chairs. “It’s a priority for Congressman Simpson to do what we can to stop these invasive quagga mussels from entering Idaho,” said Simpson spokesman Nikki Watts, “and he has brought that up numerous times with the National Park Service when they’ve testified before his committee.” In the meantime, Idaho has 15 boat-inspection stations up and running, to inspect boats coming in from out of state and target any mussels, which in most cases can be cleaned off with high-pressure hot water. “All five states have inspection programs that are coming on line,” said Amy Ferriter, invasive species coordinator for the Idaho Department of Agriculture. Anderson said the biggest problem is boats that are moored for the winter in Lake Mead, then pulled out and brought to the Northwest; they require extensive decontamination after that much time in the mussel-infested waters. He’s hoping to spur a federal crackdown on Lake Mead officials to stop them from letting infested boats leave without decontamination, rather than leave the five as-yet uninfested states to try to track them down at their borders. “I’d like to see ‘em just curtail any boats going in, if they can’t clean the boats coming out,” he said.