Problem musseling into Colorado

DNR sounds alarm on zebra mussel

— It stinks; it's sharp enough to require handling with Kevlar gloves; it can clog everything from dams to boat engines and water pipes; it spreads fast.

And the Colorado Department of Natural Resources has launched an all-out attack against it.

"It" is the zebra mussel, which first showed up in Colorado on a buoy in Lake Pueblo last January.

DNR Director Harris Sherman, assistant director Paul Orbuch and two division directors appeared before state lawmakers Wednesday to sound the alarm on the small mollusk that has the potential to cause economic and ecological devastation throughout the state.

"The zebra mussel in Lake Pueblo poses a serious threat to the state's water resources and a serious economic threat if we don't deal with this seriously and proactively : (it) will grow and reproduce at an alarming rate," Sherman told a joint meeting of the House and Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committees.

Sherman said a late bill requesting $7.5 million in state funds to put boat washing and decontamination equipment at several state parks and points of entry will be introduced next week by Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus.

The bill, to be called the Aquatic Nuisance Species Act, also will give the State Parks Division the ability to enforce mandatory inspections of boats as they enter or leave the lakes that are considered at higher risk of infestation.

Another $4 million a year in operational funds will be needed to maintain a strong containment, prevention, detection and education program, Sherman said.

Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, compared the potential damage caused by the zebra mussel to the forests of trees killed by the mountain pine beetle. He said the expense of mandatory boat inspections and cleaning equipment may be necessary.

"I don't like mandates, but if we don't do it now, we will have another crisis on our hands that will cost a lot more money," Taylor said. "It's sort of like the red trees. It's cheaper to do the preventive maintenance than have to fight forest fires."

The zebra mussel, and its close cousin the quagga mussel, are thought to have spread to the West from the Great Lakes on the hulls of recreational boats being transported across dry land.

The zebra mussel found in Lake Pueblo probably came from a boat transported from El Dorado Lake in Kansas, the state officials said.

Once the larva gets in the water, it is impossible to eradicate.

"By the time the shell attaches to hulls, buoys or anything else, it is too late," Orbuch said. "Finding the shells just means the source for making baby mussels is in there somewhere."

Orbuch said the shells are 2 to 4 centimeters in length, but can form clusters on top of each other several feet in diameter.

Isgar indicated severance tax revenue would be tapped to stop the mussels from proliferating in Colorado.

"This has serious implications for anybody in the water business," Isgar said. "It is a real concern for water providers because of pipes for drinking water and any kind of irrigation agriculture. If it gets in a reservoir, it can change the entire ecosystem."

Division of Wildlife Director Tom Remington said confining the invasive mussel to Lake Pueblo will require the education of the general public and the cooperation of every recreational boater who launches a craft in any one of the thousands of water bodies throughout Colorado.

"The state can't do this alone," Remington said. "We have to do it in a coordination fashion. It's the weakest link that is going to allow these things to get in."

The state already has spent $1 million from the state's Water Supply Reserve Account to meet the crisis in Lake Pueblo.

State Parks Director Dean Winstanley said much of what Colorado has done and is proposing is based on "lessons learned and best practices in other states."

"Most immediate is education, sampling and inspections," Winstanley said. "The more we get the word out to the boating community and others, the easier it will be to contain this."

After Lake Pueblo, the priority targets for sampling and inspections will be the Denver area Cherry Creek and Chatfield Reservoirs because of their high boating traffic, and Navajo Lake along the Colorado/New Mexico border because it is the closest access point from Lake Meade in Nevada where the mussels have been found.

Fourteen other state parks that have reservoirs and are close to entry points will hire temporary staff to conduct inspections and educate boaters, Winstanley said.

A DNR spokesman said Steamboat Lake and Stagecoach Lake state parks in northwestern Colorado tentatively are targeted for intensified inspection programs because of their proximity to the Wyoming and Utah borders.

"The message to the public is to drain, inspect, remove engines, clean and dry boats and report any mussels they find," Winstanley said. "We have to get people up to speed on the seriousness of this threat and tell them they have to do a lot of the containment on their own."

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