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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington considers strengthening measures to protect waters from aquatic invasive species

Bad news is knocking at the door and Washington is behind the curve on dealing with aquatic invasive species.

State officials say there’s an urgency to get up to speed after the alarming developments in Montana last year.

Quagga and zebra mussel larvae were found in the Missouri River system of Montana last fall. In a separate incident, an invasive parasite killed thousands of fish and prompted temporary closure of 183 miles of the Yellowstone River and tributaries.

Invasive mussels discovered in the lower Colorado River system in 2007 sent chills through Northwest states. The exotic species’ demonstrated their potential to multiply rapidly and damage beaches, clog boat motors, irrigation systems and dams, harm fish and wildlife and foul infrastructure.

Northwest states could boast of being invasive mussel-free – until last year. Washington Fish and Wildlife officials are promoting legislation this year to get more money for protection. The additional $1.3 million per year would come from increased commercial boating fees and the state general fund.

An invasive species sticker program for recreational boats, similar to Idaho’s, is likely to be considered in another year, officials say.

“This has to be a multi-state compact because the issue affects region,” said Bill Tweit, of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department’s Columbia River Policy office. “We shudder at the thought of invasives taking over the Columbia system.

“We’ve gone from being one of the first states taking action with one of the highest aquatic invasive species budgets to being one of the poorest funded programs,” he said.

The department’s aquatic invasive species unit has only two full-time inspectors for ballast water on large ships that arrive in Washington.

“We were one of the first and that’s why Puget Sound is cleaner than some other systems,” he said. “But while the problem has grown, our program has not. The damage mussels could do to the hydropower infrastructure and salmon recovery is not pleasant to contemplate.

“We spend less that $1 million a year on ballast protection. A competent program would cost about $5 million a year. California spends $8 to $9 million a year.”

“Montana is stepping up and Idaho is spending twice as much as us and they’re just dealing with mussels, not other aquatic invasives we’re including in our program, such as African clawed frogs and keeping northern pike from expanding in the Columbia River.

“We are now the weak link in the defense against aquatic invasives,” Tweit said.

Washington has been relying heavily on Idaho and Montana to catch contaminated boats before they arrive at Washington borders. However, Washington provides the decontamination facility and trained staff in Spokane to deal with fouled boats cited in Idaho.

“Idaho and Montana are guarding the perimeter to keep the Columbia Basin mussel free,” Tweit said. “But they are permeable. There’s a need for a second-level perimeter.”

Washington also is vulnerable from it’s ocean coast. “When we started finding invasives attached to tsunami debris (from Japan) we created rapid response team to decontaminate stuff that washed up on beaches,” he said.

Education needs to be a higher priority, he said.

“We need to get staff out to boating events, sportsmen shows, to clubs and other groups to teach the basics,” he said, noting that the message to recreational boaters has been boiled down to three words: “Clean, drain, dry.”

The lesson already has been learned in this state with invasives such as spartina, a nonnative cordgrass introduced to Washington saltwaters nearly a century ago.

“It can be a big problem for shellfish growers and salmon estuaries,” Tweit said. “The problem was recognized in the 70s, but we dithered and didn’t control it when it might have been easy. Now, some $35 million later, it’s been knocked back to less than half of a percent of its former range, but we’ll have to be forever vigilant.

“The best way to control these things is to keep them out.”

Northern pike that have filtered down from illegal introductions in Montana are a huge concern to salmon managers in the Columbia River system, Tweit said.

“We’re working to convince some sportsmen that pike are a problem, not an opportunity,” he said. “We would have preferred if they never had gotten here.” The pike apparently were illegally introduced in Montana and came down the Flathead and Clark Fork river systems to the Pend Oreille.

“While few people question the mission to keep quagga mussels out, some anglers want to make an exception for trophy northerns, which grow to trophy sizes.”

Washington has an Invasive Species Council, which is separate from the Fish and Wildlife Department and works on a wider range of invaders from apple mites and weeds to feral pigs.

The office has listed a “Top 50” list of species that are major concerns. They have the potential to have expensive impacts on economic sectors such as farming, ranching, recreation and timber.

The Fish and Wildlife Department’s legislative funding request focuses on aquatic invasive species, a category that is in itself a huge plate of issues.

Eurasian watermilfoil, for example, is a problem that tends to be in the realm of the Department of Ecology, although Fish and Wildlife helps with enforcement, Tweit said.

The path forward is not clear on milfoil, he said. Even if more funding were to be available for controlling the plant that clogs boat launches and swimming areas, the treatment is controversial. Mechanical means of cutting away the weed may just spread the problem and chemical treatments are almost always opposed by someone.

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council has been supporting regional efforts to control aquatic invasive species for years.

“It fits our mandate to protect a low-cost, reliable power supply and mitigate impacts of dams on fish and wildlife,” said Tom Karier of Spokane, a professor of energy and natural resource economics who’s been on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council since 1998. “Both mandates are jeopardized by potential invasions of mussels.”

He said progress is being made on putting $4 million in federal funding to work on the ground in this region to beef up inspection stations. The money has been authorized but not yet dispersed, he said.

“Getting the mussels into the Columbia Basin has been described as the largest ecological disaster that hasn’t happened yet,” he said. “We have a chance now to prevent it.”