A non-native mussel species that is causing havoc in reservoirs across the nation has not yet infiltrated McPhee Reservoir, and local managers want to keep it that way.
If the dreaded quagga mussel – which has contaminated nearby Lake Powell – migrates here, it would put the region’s main water source in jeopardy, said Mike Preston, general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District.
“We want to do everything we can to prevent contamination because it would end up costing millions of dollars to mitigate damage to our reservoir and irrigation infrastructure,” Preston said. “Rigorous boat-inspection programs are the key to prevention.”
Invasive mussels from infected waterways attach themselves to boat hulls, and their invisible larvae can live in the bilge pumps and boat compartments for 30 days.
If an infected boat is not inspected, cleaned, drained and dried before entering McPhee, the mussel will enter the lake, rapidly reproduce and attach its hard shell in thick layers to the reservoir’s critical infrastructure.
“It just takes one infected boat to put our irrigation systems, municipal water systems and power plant structures at severe risk,” Preston said. “The damage these mussels cause is truly catastrophic.”
The filter feeder mussel is also a threat to sport and native fish populations because they compete for food and clear up the cloudy water that fish need to help hide them from predators and to catch prey.
In recent years, the $80,000 annual budget for the boat-inspection program at the McPhee and House Creek boat ramps has been in trouble.
Since 2009, the bill was split between the San Juan National Forest, which manages lake recreation, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
This year, the Forest Service’s boat-inspection budget was cut drastically in favor of boat inspections on popular Front Range lakes to prevent the spread there.
CPW’s boat inspection budget, drawn from severance taxes from oil and gas revenues, is also drying up as that industry falters.
Compounding the problem for the CPW budget is a recent decision by the Colorado Supreme Court that will significantly broaden the deductions oil and gas companies can claim against their severance tax liability.
This year, local agencies scrambled to raise $86,000 to run the program and expand inspections at House Creek to seven days per week, the same number of inspection days as the McPhee ramp.
Next year, to accommodate shrinking budgets, DWCD, the Bureau of Reclamation, San Juan Forest, and CPW have agreed to each pay 25 percent of the $86,000 boat inspection budget.
“The goal is to have that cost-share agreement for the future,” Preston said.
A new marina and high water have made McPhee more attractive this year.
“Boat traffic has increased this season, and campground use is up,” said forest recreation planner Tom Rice.
As an added prevention measure, agencies are negotiating ways to prevent boats from launching onto McPhee in the evening after the inspections stations are closed. Closing boat ramp gates after hours is one solution being considered. Ideas for more funding sources for the program are also being debated, including adding an extra fee onto boat registration, or passing legislation to secure funding.
Officials report that McPhee continues to test negative for the invasive mussels and their larvae as do most of Colorado waterways, with the exception of Pueblo Reservoir.
“In the last few years, Colorado has been able to keep most of our waters off the positive list,” said Elizabeth Brown, CPW’s invasive-species coordinator. “Other states without mandatory inspection and decontamination programs, such as Arizona, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, South Dakota, and Lake Powell, continue to become infested.”