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Originally published Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: The danger of an invasive mussel infestation in Northwest waters

The federal government needs to step up funding and support to prevent an invasive mussel infestation in the Pacific Northwest, writes guest columnist Phil Rockefeller.

Special to The Times

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ONE look at photos of the thick mats of rock-hard freshwater mussels clogging water intakes at Hoover Dam, the outlet of Lake Mead on the Colorado River, should be enough to convince anyone that it will be a nightmare if these prolific invasive species take hold in the Pacific Northwest, where more than half of our electricity is generated at hydropower dams.

Dime-size zebra and quagga mussels attach to boats, docks, pilings — virtually any submerged object — and can be transported to other water bodies when watercraft are moved. They can survive out of water for days and longer in the right conditions.

The Independent Economic Advisory Board, which advises the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, estimates the potential cost of controlling a mussel infestation and cleaning hydropower and fish-passage facilities easily would cost tens of millions of dollars per year.

Further, the total cost of protecting lakes and rivers, dams, irrigation facilities and other water bodies and structures, inspecting and decontaminating infested watercraft entering the region, providing public education, and undertaking related activities would total than $100 million per year, the board estimated.

Diligent state agencies in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana are inspecting watercraft entering the Northwest from Lake Mead and other mussel-infested water bodies, including the Great Lakes. Collectively, the four states have inspected more than 83,000 watercraft in 2012 and intercepted 108 that were infested. This effort, while admirable, is underfunded and understaffed. The states need to step up the battle, and they need federal assistance to do it.

We must address the funding issue. In March and May the Northwest Power and Conservation Council wrote to members of the region’s congressional delegation urging that $2 million be included in the Fish and Wildlife Service budget for fiscal year 2013 to help Northwest states boost the number of inspection stations. The Fish and Wildlife Service must also follow through on its promises to increase boat inspections and monitoring of concessionaires who manage access points at infested water bodies like Lake Mead.

The congressional delegation has been enormously helpful in working with the states to raise awareness and focus the attention of federal agencies on the potential for havoc and extraordinary expense should mussels take hold in the Northwest.

The need for additional inspection and decontamination stations and adequate funding for these new and existing facilities are not the only challenges in this battle. There also is an anomaly in federal law that affects funding and inspections, leaving state and federal agencies unable to act with the vigor and resources the problem demands.

Specifically, it is a violation of the federal Lacey Act to transport zebra mussels across state lines, but not quagga mussels. The law simply must catch up with the rapid spread of quagga mussels, currently classified only as a “species of concern.” The same law classifies zebra mussels as an “injurious species.” Both species are injurious, and quaggas are considered by some to present a higher risk because of their ability to out-compete zebras.

Either Congress should amend the Lacey Act to recognize quagga mussels as a threat just as serious as zebra mussels, or federal agencies should change their regulations accordingly. This would make it easier for the Fish and Wildlife Service to mandate watercraft inspections, prosecute violators and direct appropriate funding to the fight.

The threat is real. Inaction not only risks the integrity of the hydropower, irrigation and navigation systems on our rivers but also the significant investments made over the past decades to rebuild and enhance fish species in the Columbia River Basin, including more than a dozen that are listed as threatened or endangered.

Phil Rockefeller is a Washington state member of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and chairs the Fish and Wildlife Committee.

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