An infestation of zebra mussels could end up costing millions of dollars in the Okanagan.
Zebra and quagga mussels are the Okanagan's aquatic enemy No. 1 with the potential to cause $45 million in damage every year.
As a result of this looming threat, the Okanagan Basin Water Board is pleading with the provincial and federal governments to immediately set up boat inspection stations to prevent the mussels from migrating into Okanagan Lake and other Interior waterways. Kelowna city council endorsed the recommendation Monday.
"If they were to get into Okanagan Lake, conservatively, (experts) think that it could be $45 million per year in damage to infrastructure, to loss in property values, to damage to the native species," said Kelowna Coun. Gerry Zimmermann, council's representative on the water board.
"There's no way of getting rid of them once they are here. They clog up any sewage outfall pipes, any water intake pipes, any infrastructure like that."
Last year, officials at Idaho inspection stations found the mussels on 50 boats, noted Zimmermann.
"Six of them were coming in our direction," he said. "Mussels can travel in anything, not only clinging onto a boat but in the water ballasts. If the ballasts are purged, they get into the lake. If they get here, milfoil is going to look like nothing compared to this. It's very, very critical."
"This matter concerns all local governments in the Okanagan as the infestation will have drastic economic and environmental consequences," said OBWB chair Stu Wells.
"The infestation will cost millions of dollars in damages and increase operating costs for infrastructure. Over time, changes in ecosystems caused by these invaders can stimulate growth and spread of aquatic vegetation, and increase the severity of toxic algal blooms."
The OBWB wants local governments and First Nations of the Okanagan to join in urging senior governments to take immediate action. Since recreational inland boating poses the greatest risk of transferring them, Oregon, Idaho and Montana have mandatory boat inspection stations for trailered watercraft and to raise public awareness, said Wells.
"Establishment of similar mandatory inspection stations in Canada - at key points along provincial and international borders - would create a cordon to prevent or delay the introduction to three Canadian provinces, including British Columbia, and four U.S. states."
This strategy could save hundreds of millions of dollars by protecting critical infrastructure on major river systems such as the Columbia, and by protecting fisheries and other economic sectors in regions such as the Okanagan, he said.
"We believe that inspection stations are the most important, most powerful action that can be taken by the governments of Canada and B.C. Following the example of our neighbours, this relatively easy action will yield meaningful results and delay or stop the spread."
The Okanagan's wake-up call came last July 3 when provincial and federal officials found quagga mussels on a powerboat moored for three days at a Shuswap Lake marina. It had been transported from Arizona, bringing the mussels with it. Fortunately, they were all dead, but the bilge water was tested for larvae and divers checked the lake bottom for any sign of them.
The Invasive Species Council of B.C. has introduced the Clean, Drain, Dry information campaign, used elsewhere in North America, in which trained staff talked to recreational boaters about the importance of cleaning their boats and equipment.
Lisa Scott, co-ordinator of the Okanagan and Similkameen Invasive Species Society, warned Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen directors last summer the potential financial impact on in-water infrastructure, tourism and control measures is "pretty staggering."
"It actually makes terrestrial (invasive) plants look like something that's quite miniscule," she said. "A single female mussel has the potential to create one million offspring per year."
In 2009, B.C. signed the Columbia Basin Rapid Response Plan, along with Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. The system provides for early detection, rapid response and notification about the fingernail-sized, freshwater bivalve mollusks originally from the Balkans, Poland and the former Soviet Union.
In the 1980s, they were discovered in the Great Lakes, likely the result of ocean freighters pumping out their bilges. They then spread throughout Ontario and Quebec, and into 29 U.S. states as far west as California and Colorado.
According to the online National Atlas of the United States, "once zebra mussels become established in a water body, they are impossible to eradicate with the technology currently available. Zebra mussels are known to have caused alarming declines in populations of fish, birds and native mussel species, and can disrupt a city's entire water supply system by colonizing the insides of pipelines and restricting the flow of water."
"Zebra mussels can damage boat hulls, plug water systems used in boat motors, air conditioners and heads, and cause navigation buoys to sink. Millions of dollars are spent each year controlling, cleaning and monitoring zebra mussels in U.S. states."