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. State Department of Fish and Wildlife officials are promoting legislation this year to get more money for protection. An 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 the region,” said Bill Tweit, of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’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 million-$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.
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.
Bill Tweit of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife
Washington has been relying heavily on Idaho and Montana to catch contaminated boats before they arrive at Washington borders. However, Washington provides a 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.
The threat of invasive species also can be found in the South Sound. New Zealand mud snails became an issue in October 2009 when they were found in Capitol Lake in Olympia. The lake was temporarily closed as state agencies attempted to halt the spread of the tiny snails. Attempts included lowering lake levels to freeze exposed snails during the winter, and back flushing the lake with salt water.
First discovered in the western United States in Idaho in the Snake River in the 1980s, the New Zealand mud snail has become an environmental issues in several rivers in 10 states and mulitple national parks.
Education needs to be a higher priority, Tweit 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 non-native 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.”
$35 million The estimate amount of money the state has spent since the 1970s working to remove spartina, a non-native cordgrass introduced to Washington saltwaters nearly a century ago.
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.”
Washington seeks to boost aquatic invasive species protections
The state’s Aquatic Invasive Species Funding Advisory Committee recommended that the 2017 Legislature expand funding for prevention efforts through a combination of new user fees, general fund contribution and through public-private partnerships.
The state currently receives $500,000 a year from a $2 portion of the $5 annual powerboat registration sticker and $400,000 from federal grants.
HB 1429 and SB 5303 seek commercial boating fees and general fund allocation totaling an additional $1.3 million a year to:
▪ Increase watercraft inspections from the current level of 14,200 to 50,000 a year. Mandatory check stations would increase from 50 to 250.
▪ Inspect 250 sites, up from 140, three times a year for early detection of zebra and quagga mussels.
▪ Boost the frequency of training sessions for Washington State Patrol and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.
▪ Improve compliance of vessels with state requirements through more effective shipping vessel inspections, improving technical assistance to vessel owners and expanding data management.
▪ Provide grants for local governments and tribes to address aquatic invasive species concerns at local levels.