Colorado lakes are free of the invasive quagga and zebra mussels that have caused havoc in some states, in part because of rigorous boat inspections, according to a specialist with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
But while mandatory inspections are a good defense against the mussel, a state budget crunch for inspections is restricting access for motorized boaters locally. More than 100 recreationists and water users grappled with the problem during a community meeting Thursday in Cortez that was put on by Parks and Wildlife at the Destination Grill conference center.
The mussel problem was the first presentation.
“They are highly detrimental and have huge impacts,” said Robert Walters, a CPW aquatic species specialist.
Once in a lake, they proliferate rapidly, attach to everything, clog irrigation equipment and hydropower plants. They are impossible to eradicate and the non-native species have no local predators.
One mussel can produce up to a million eggs. Adults attach to substrates in layers, on docks, boats, intake pipes and dams. Then the pervasive filter-feeders suck millions of gallons of water per day, wiping out micro-organisms relied on for food by native and sport fish.
Mussels spread to lakes by uncleaned boats from infected lakes. The larvae can survive 27 days in standing water of a boat, including in the engine and ballast.
“They remain viable on boats that are transporting across the country,” Walters said.
For years, Parks and Wildlife has been campaigning for boaters to “Clean, Dry and Drain” all boats before entering and after leaving a waterway. Decontamination only requires power spraying with hot water that is at least 140 degrees.
Aquatic hitchhikerQuagga and zebra mussels are native to Europe and Ukraine, and arrived to the U.S. in 1988 via the ballast of large oceanic ships.
They spread quickly. By 1990, the Great Lakes were infested, and by 1993, they became widespread across the East.
By the late 1990s, they had traveled West, contaminating lake Mead by 2007, then Lake Powell in 2012.
“They are the most expensive invasive species in the U.S.,” Walters said. “Everyone will be impacted if they get into Colorado waters.”
Local defenseMcPhee is considered at risk because of its proximity to Lake Powell. A recent Utah study shows one in five boaters who leave at Powell are heading to Colorado.
At McPhee, managers are tightening up access. Starting this year, motorized and trailered boats may enter the lake from just two inspection stations at the McPhee and House creek boat ramps.
One-way spike strips will allow boat owners to leave the lake after inspection stations are closed and gated.
A McPhee closure order issued by the San Juan National Forest prohibits motorized boats from launching on McPhee except at the two boat ramps when inspection stations are open.
Launching motorized boats are not allowed at Sage Hen, Big Bend or from the cemetery road in Dolores.
Nonmotorized exemptionsThere are exemptions. Hand-launched, nonmotorized boats are considered low risk for carrying mussels because they generally don’t store water. Under Colorado regulations, they are exempt from mandatory boat inspections and the forest closure order.
Exempt boats include kayaks, canoes, rafts, belly boats, windsurfers, sailboards, float tubes, inner tubes and paddle boards. Electric trolling motors are also exempt from inspection because they do not pull in or hold water.
Exempt boats on a trailer, such as a large kayak or canoe, are allowed to launch as long as the trailer does not enter the water. An exempt boat loses its exemption status if a gas or diesel engine is added.
Smaller lakes join fightOther area lakes are also adding precautions.
Jackson Gulch has boat inspection requirements for motorized and trailered boats. Narraguinnep and Totten lakes have new motorized boating bans, but both allow exempted hand-launched, nonmotorized vessels.
No decision has been made at Groundhog, but recreation managers are negotiating with Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co. about boat inspections for motorized crafts.
Summit Reservoir managers on Thursday said they are working on a mussel prevention plan.
If a lake cannot find funding for inspections, a boat ban is often the next step.
Funding crisisParks and Wildlife depends on severance taxes from oil and gas companies to fund the boat inspection program. But in 2016 the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the state overcharged the companies, and the park agency lost $4 million in funding for aquatic species control, officials said.
In Montezuma County, agencies scrambled to continue inspections at McPhee. The U.S. Forest Service, Dolores Water Conservancy, Bureau of Reclamation, and Parks and Wildlife agreed on a cost-sharing plan to cover the roughly $80,000 for the 2017 boat inspection program.
The funding-starved program at McPhee is limited to the May-October season, to the dismay of local fisherman.
“April and November are some of the best fishing on McPhee,” one fisherman said.
“Locking us out is taking away our freedom to enjoy the lakes and public lands we taxpayers pay for,” said Steve Urleywine. “Limiting motorized deprives the handicapped and elderly of recreating on our lakes.”
McPhee Reservoir engineer Ken Curtis said managers hope to expand boat inspections after funding is secured.
“Inspections going into the shoulder seasons, and expanding the days at House Creek ramp is the goal,” Curtis said.
Parks and Wildlife inspection stations cost roughly $250 per day to operate, officials said.
Get creative, boaters saySeveral audience members suggested solutions such as establishing inspections for local lakes, such as a boating fee.
“A more centralized inspection program for all lakes should be explored,” said Stan Folsom, of Docs Marina at McPhee.
“Get volunteers trained to inspect boats,” said Brenda O’Brien, of Cortez. “Bringing back jet skiing to Narraguinnep is important to a lot of families because it is safer there than McPhee.”
“I see donations boxes for owls and otters in state pamphlets, why not ask for donations for boat inspections?” said Russ Montgomery. “I’d pay for that, and so would others if you asked.”
Dolores Ranger Derek Padilla said the San Juan National Forest is exploring a fee system for boaters to least keep the current inspection program going. Parks and Wildlife is working on an aquatic-nuisance sticker program to boost revenues for boat inspections.
And in the Colorado Legislature, Senate Bill 17-259 provides one year of general fund dollars to support boat inspections. If approved, it would go into effect in July, 2017.
House Joint Resolution 17-1004 urges federal agencies to provide funding for Parks and Wildlife to manage federal waters such as McPhee.
Public safetyDave Huhn, a water deputy with the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office, said there will be increased patrols of lakes to enforce compliance of the new boating rules. The sheriff’s office will assist Parks and Wildlife with enforcement, and violators face tickets starting at $50.
“All agencies are working together to ensure that all law enforcement and emergency services will have full access to the lakes at any time, year-round, to respond to emergencies for public safety,” Huhn said.
Colorado is in a battle to stop the mussel, and the fight is expected to intensify, Walters said.
Already a total of 120 boats with attached adult mussels have been intercepted coming to Colorado waters.
On the Western Slope, boats with mussels have been intercepted and decontaminated at Grand Junction, Blue Mesa, Crawford, Navajo and Vallecito.
“There’s no going back once infected, so we are big on prevention,” Walters said.