Invasive mussel prevention to cost an additional $10 million

Legislators learned Monday that a new aquatic invasive species program would cost Montana at least $10.5 million every two years for the foreseeable future.

Members of Montana’s Mussel Response Team told the Joint Long Range Planning and Natural Resources and Transportation Committee that four parts of the aquatic invasive species program would have to be amped up to limit invasive mussels to the four sites where they’ve been found.

In October, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks found samples taken from Tiber and Canyon Ferry reservoirs and the Milk and Missouri rivers that tested positive for either zebra or quagga mussel larvae. At that point, the two reservoirs were closed and the Mussel Response Incident Command Team was created. Incident Command Team commander Mark Wolcott compared the situation to being ready to respond to wildfire: more people and resources had to be ready and available to respond.

“Montana has now changed in status: We were primarily in a defensive mode, and now we are considered a ‘source’ state by our neighbors. We've met with Alberta, British Columbia, Washington state, Idaho and Wyoming and they are all very concerned about the work we are doing,” Wolcott said. “One of the challenges is there’s no viable way to control the population. That means any expense is in perpetuity.”

The team has identified four necessary changes as part of its plan to stem the mussel invasion:

1.     Establish two decontamination stations each at Tiber and Canyon Ferry reservoirs and require that all boats be decontaminated before they leave the area. Only boats that would be returning to the same reservoir would be exempt.

2.     Double the number of aquatic invasive species checkstations to 34 and increase the length of the inspection season, the number of days and the number of hours per day that the stations are open. Boats arriving from out of state would be a priority.

3.     Expand the water sampling and monitoring program to make sure FWP doesn’t miss the presence of mussels or their larvae. The number of water bodies sampled would increase by 38 to 210, and the number of samples collected would surge to 1,500 from 610. This means the capacity of the two processing laboratories in Helena and Kalispell would have to be greatly increased, Wolcott said.

4.     Finally, the public needs to be educated about the big changes and enforcement would have to be strict. Incident Team co-commander Randy Arnold said wardens know they will be needed at check stations.

“We need to change our culture and the way we recreate, and to do that, we have to change minds. Education needs to be more robust. There's going to be a change for people that aren’t ready for this change,” Arnold said . "We need to describe to our users what are they going to see on the ground that's different this year."

The price for those additional changes is estimated at around $10.5 million, but John Tubbs, director of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said he expected that the federal government would end up paying about half. That’s because mussels can wreak havoc with the components of Bureau of Reclamation dams and the irrigation pipes that farmers depend on, which affects the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Plus, the Columbia River is the only basin in the U.S. that remains mussel-free. Downstream states want to keep it that way because they don’t want to have to raise money to combat an infestation. A Washington state report issued Thursday estimates the annual cost of keeping mussels under control if they became established in Washington is $100 million. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that if zebra and quagga mussels invade the Columbia River, they could cost hydroelectric facilities up to $300 million a year and incur additional costs associated with environmental damage and increased operating expenses to fish hatcheries and water diversions.

To protect the Columbia River, Congress appropriated $4 million in December 2015 to match state spending in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana on watercraft inspection stations. In December 2016, Congress passed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act that provides similar 50/50 match funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers help create and maintain watercraft inspection stations to protect the Columbia River Basin from mussels.

Tubbs said some of that money could be used to keep mussels out of western Montana rivers that flow into the Columbia drainage. That’s essential because mussels spread easily and smother almost every hard surface. Native to Eurasia, they invaded Lake Ontario in 1991, and by 2007, they'd become established in the southwestern U.S.

“The one thing I told (the USACE manager) is we may ask for a lot of consideration,” Tubbs said. “We would like them to funnel the majority of the money to Montana, and we have support in the Northwest to do that. We want them to fund stations east of the Continental Divide because we need to protect the west from the east of the Divide.”

But that means Montana must still come up with about $5 million for the mussel response program every biennium, and this year, with the Legislature already looking at a potential shortfall of more than $200 million, that’s going to be hard to find.

It was essential to be able to get the money soon, Tubbs said, because the work needs to start as soon as the lake and river ice starts breaking up and the water starts to warm above 50 degrees. That’s when the mussel larvae will start to move if they’re there.

Some legislators are already trying to find ways to raise the money, and about seven bills are already in the pipeline that would do things such as charge boaters a fee or tax other water users. Tubbs wasn’t ready to comment on which bill might provide the best route forward.

Others on the Response Team pointed out that mussels aren’t the only species that could create expensive problems for Montana.

Montana State University invasive plant specialist Jane Mangold said invasive weeds cover about 8.2 million acres of the state and cost Montana livestock producers about $1.29 per acre in lost grazing opportunity. Lee Greenwood of The Nature Conservancy said the emerald ash borer could be the next Dutch elm disease if it finds its way into Montana. Many towns have ash trees that could be wiped out within five years and cost a place like the city of Billings about $10 million to control.

“The best way to deal with an invasive species is to keep it out,” Greenwood said.

Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, agreed and was disgusted that Montana must now fight a mussel infestation because he remembered when the Legislature started considering a prevention program back in 2009.

“A lot of this should have been done back in 2011,” Ankney said, waving the Incident Team’s Response Plan in the air. “We have no reason to expect that we wouldn’t be at this point with what we –and I’m talking about the Legislature – have done toward invasive species. We haven’t done nothing.”