WASHINGTON – Montana’s reservoirs and water systems are free of invasive mussels, which lowers Colorado’s risk of invasion, said Mike Preston with the Dolores Water Conservancy District on Wednesday.
The nonnative quagga and zebra mussels clog pipes, grates and other water infrastructure, affecting drinking water across the West.
The issue has come under increasing scrutiny from Congress, and Preston traveled to Washington, D.C., this week to testify before the Senate Water and Power Subcommittee on behalf of Colorado.
“The more areas we can keep mussel-free, the less risk we have to deal with,” Preston said. The invasive mussels are “one of the most critical issues we had to deal with.”
Recreation is a large contributor to the economy in Southwest Colorado, and if the rivers are overrun with mussels or saltcedar, that could affect kayaking or fishing.
Since Colorado’s river systems flow to 17 states, invasive mussel growth prevention is “really important for everyone downstream as well,” Preston said.
Boat inspections critical“Once McPhee (Reservoir) gets infested, we would never be able to get it back to health again,” Preston told The Durango Herald after the hearing.
Colorado also created a mandatory inspection program in 2008, and at this point, there are no adult mussels detected in Colorado, Preston testified.
“The key is to not let infested boats on our lakes and reservoirs,” Preston said. The mandatory inspections of trailer boats prevent the mussels from spreading around the West, Preston said.
Any risk is coming from out of state, so the aggressive inspection of trailer boats is necessary to prevent contamination of Colorado drinking and irrigation water reservoirs, Preston said.
When boat inspections were enforced at McPhee Reservoir, Preston conducted public meetings to orient the community to what the conservancy was doing and why and to help residents understand the grave consequences of mussel invasion.
The process is inconvenient and requires hard work in the boiling summer sun from inspectors. But the “consequences far exceed what we are investing,” Preston said.
Biologists like Daniel Simberloff with the University of Tennessee have argued that the classification of species as “intruders” does more harm than good. As climate change forces species to migrate to new places to survive, conservationists casting them as intruders could hurt their chances of avoiding extinction.
However, species like the quagga and zebra mussels are easily distinguishable from forced migrating species because they were introduced in the Great Lakes from Ukraine, most likely in ballast water from ships that previously traveled on the ocean.
“Zebra and quagga mussels should be prevented from establishing even if it is enormously difficult to do so,” Simberloff wrote in an email to the Herald. “They are in no way like native species spreading because of climate change – they are Old World, recently introduced to North America.”
The cost of invasionIn the Colorado River basin, over 50% of the water supply goes to irrigate crops like alfalfa, which is used to feed beef and dairy cattle. Ranchers and farmers in the American West are already struggling to maintain their income, along with their way of life. Maintaining agriculture as an economically viable industry in Southwest Colorado is an important aspect of combating mussel invasion in the rivers and irrigation systems, Preston said.
Quagga and zebra mussels can “put people who use water irrigation systems out of business,” said Scott Cameron, an official with the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Rural areas of Colorado that rely on hydroelectric dams could see the cost of maintaining those dams soar by half a million dollars per year if they are infested with mussels.
And if irrigation systems in Southwest Colorado were infested with the mussels, the cost of eradicating them would be “impossible for us to absorb,” Preston said.
Research funding from Congress a possibilityPreston said the Bureau of Reclamation needs to be at the center of future funding and legislation from Congress because of their successful work in Colorado.
Cameron advised the Senate subcommittee that more funding for research would help keep the mussels at bay.
“There is always the potential for a research breakthrough,” which might inspire a technological solution to rid the West of quagga and zebra mussels.
The U.S. Department of the Interior is also working with Colorado by providing information about the detection of mussels because state officials can’t enforce mandatory inspections without the data to back up the need for such an investment.
A field officer in Southwest Colorado is also collaborating with other states such as Nevada and Arizona, as well as U.S. Fish and Wildlife, to share data.
Data sharing through an app has proved to be an effective way of combating the invasive mussel, said Stephanie Criswell, invasive species program manager for the Montana Department of Natural Resources.
Emily Hayes is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.