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Vexing mussels: Officials concede defeat at Lake Powell, seek to contain invasive species

Published: Monday, May 19 2014 6:38 p.m. MDT

A wake boarder enjoys the water on Lake Powell Friday, June 21, 2013.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PROVO — For 14 years, officials at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area focused on keeping Quagga mussels out of Lake Powell.

It was an undertaking, as National Park Service rangers tried to police about 2 million annual visitors and an estimated 400,000 boat launches at eight developed boat access points, and at least a half-dozen other access points along 2,000 miles of shoreline, said Todd Brindle, recreation area superintendent.

Last year, rangers learned they lost the battle against the invasive species in the vast lake.

"We did all we could," Brindle said.

On Monday, Brindle announced at a meeting of local, state and federal representatives from various agencies at the U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Reclamation office in Provo that the National Park Service is shifting its efforts from prevention to containment. The emphasis now will be on educating boaters and screening boats not as they enter the lake, as was done before, but as they exit.

"There's no way to remove mussels from Lake Powell; no way to reverse that," he said. "We're going to face the lake and try to focus on boats coming out of the lake."

Jordan Nielson, aquatic species coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said the mussels have already spread into 24 miles of Lake Powell, and the state is committed to seeing the infestation stop there.

Lake Powell ran a good program and rangers did their best for 14 years to prevent the mussels from invading the lake, Nielson said, but now it's up to Utah to protect its water.

"Now we have to change our tactics as far as containing mussels," he said. "We don't want them to move away from Lake Powell because we have a lot of other beautiful lakes in Utah that we use for hydropower, for drinking water, for recreation, and we definitely don't want mussels there."

Utahns soon may start hearing about a new "disease," advertised as the "STD of the Sea" or a skiff-transmitted disease, in a public awareness campaign that takes aim at Quagga mussels and their cousin, the zebra mussel.

The Division of Wildlife Resources already has a website that explains the risks associated with the spread of the invasive species and what boaters can do to prevent infestations in other lakes and reservoirs.

The title of the campaign was meant to catch attention.

"It may be offensive to some people, and we understand that, but we want something that resonates with people, that they take personally," Nielson said. "Quagga mussels aren't a disease that are going to affect a person's physical body, but it does affect their boat. It does affect the water they use every day to water their lawn, to drink, to take a shower, so we want to make sure they make a personal connection to how bad these things are going to be to our economy, to our water, to Utah in general."

At the end of the 2013 season, 144,321 boats were stopped and inspected in Utah, and 3,054 decontaminations were performed on vessels flagged as high risk. Only three boats were found to be encrusted with mussels, down from 49 the previous year, but Nielson said the National Parks Service saw more.

Nielson said there are always those who will fall through the cracks, and he urged boaters to decontaminate their vessels by cleaning, draining and drying them up to 30 days in the winter months, 18 days in the spring and fall, and seven days in the summer. The last thing state officials want to do is discourage recreation, but they also want to protect the water by educating boaters.

"We want them to succeed," Nielson said. "We don't want to give them tickets. We want them to comply with the law of their own free will."

Emery County Commissioner J.R. Nelson said tackling the Quagga mussels in Lake Powell takes a united effort, not only from various agencies, but from all Utahns.

"If we don't get help from the general public on this, we're toast," Nelson said. "This is frightening. This is huge. This could be devastating to all water users in Utah. … Yes, Lake Powell is perhaps a lost cause, but we don't want to have any other lost causes in Utah."

Monday's meeting, with various participants from across the state interested in protecting Utah's waterways, spoke to the importance of coordinating and working together.

"I think it's going to be a concerted effort from all parties involved," Nelson said. "We all need to come together and fight an invasion of an ugly, invasive species."

Jay Humphrey, with the Emery Water Conservancy District, said the spread of Quagga mussels beyond Lake Powell to Emery County would force the county to cut off water to residents, farmers and power plants.

"In our area, it would devastate our economy," Humphrey said. "We're very concerned."

That's why he said he's not satisfied with the National Park Service's plan to focus on educating boaters. Humphrey said education was the plan before, and it failed.

"There is more (that) could be done," he said. "Boats could be decontaminated as they left the reservoir. We also could check all the boats entering our waters if we had a boater identification system. … They need to know where these boats have been, and the honor system doesn't work all the time."

Monday's meeting was important in that it brought together a range of agencies, including representatives from water districts across the state, Humphrey said.

"This is the first time we ever sat together and talked about this problem, how it would affect each of the districts," he said, "and there was some plans that came out of it that maybe we could find a solution to the problem."

Email: emorgan@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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