The threat of an invasive aquatic mussel infestation at McPhee Reservoir could get worse if funding problems force the boat inspection program to be reduced, or even canceled.
McPhee has not been infected by the destructive quagga and zebra mussels because of a successful boat inspection program the past few years.
The non-native mussels proliferate rapidly, have no predators, consume food relied on by young native and sport fish, and clog up irrigation and municipal water infrastructures.
The species are spread through boats that have been at contaminated waterways and have not been properly drained and cleaned.
McPhee is considered at high risk for a mussel infestation because its proximity to Lake Powell, which recently became infected, as has Lake Mead. Pueblo Reservoir is the only lake in Colorado with confirmed quagga mussels.
The boat inspection program costs $80,000 per year to operate at McPhee and runs from May through October at the McPhee and House Creek boat ramps.
Historically, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has paid $40,000. The San Juan National Forest, which manages recreation on the lake, usually kicks in $40,000.
But despite the infestation danger, last February the U.S. Forest Service’s regional office in Denver slashed its contribution to zero for the McPhee boat inspection program.
“We’re rattling cages up the line to try and get that funding back,” said Tom Rice, recreation planner for the San Juan National Forest. “We’ve secured $15,000 from Secure Rural Schools for this year, but that leaves us short.”
Meanwhile, CPW, local forest officials, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Dolores Water Conservancy District are scrambling to come up with a sustainable funding plan for 2016 and beyond.
“Our board has approved a new budget item to help fund the boat inspections,” said Mike Preston, DWCD manager. “We’re negotiating with the forest service and all agencies on a cost share for the program. The responsibility should be shouldered equally.”
CPW aquatic biologist Jim White says reducing or eliminating the program would be a mistake. Ideally it should be expanded not cut, he noted, pointing out that the House Creek boat ramp only has inspections on the weekend.
“I’d love to see better (inspection) coverage,” he said. “It would be unfortunate if the program was cut, because the inspections have resulted in no infestations that we know of at McPhee.”
Public education for boaters and anglers is also key, and has been effective, White said.
The campaign: “Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers, Clean, Drain and Dry” your boats after every use is critical to prevent the spread of the adult mussels and veligers, microscopic larvae that can live for days in pools of water inside boats and bilge pumps.
The larvae mature while suspended in the water column, and could travel downstream from McPhee dam, infecting the Lower Dolores River.
Funding robust boat inspections is preferred, officials say, because without them the alternative could be reducing public access.
“At a lot of reservoirs, when inspectors are not present the ramps are closed,” White said.
The non-native mussels are wreaking havoc on reservoirs in California, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. They drastically increase maintenance costs to clear the hard-shelled adult creatures, which attach themselves in thick layers onto reservoir infrastructure.
Contamination at McPhee could affect local water infrastructure, including Cortez and Dove Creek municipal systems, the canal complex, pumping stations, and the Towaoc Highline canal, which feeds the Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch operations.
“The ramifications are severe, and could potentially cause millions of dollars in damage,” Preston said. “We want to do everything possible to make sure mussels don’t get into McPhee.”