|Tourists enjoy Kelowna's sandy beaches last summer. The waterfront and lake face danger from milfoil.|
The Okanagan Basin Water Board recently learned the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations wants a 100-metre buffer zone if a single shell fragment of a Rocky Mountain ridged mussel is found on an Okanagan Lake beach.
Ministry staff want diver surveys and relocation of any mussels before the OBWB can use its rototiller to remove milfoil. Staff will also likely require the same steps for areas where common floater mussels are found.
"The areas we treat are already highly disturbed (rototilled annually for
30 years and the site of heavy public use), and additional restrictions are a great financial burden to this local-government funded program," said Stu Wells, OBWB chair.
"In some cases, the new requirements could render it impossible to do effective milfoil control. The board sees the new requests by (ministry) staff for increased licensing requirements as excessive, given the successful track record of the program and its importance for the region's economy."
The OBWB is seeking stable, predictable regulations that take a balanced approach between protecting native mussels and protecting public enjoyment of the beaches, he said.
On Monday, Kelowna city councillors agreed with the OBWB and wrote Minister Steve Thomson, Kelowna Mission MLA.
"Their concern was we're stirring (the bottom) up when we do the milfoil rototilling. The problem we've got is we've been doing the same areas year after year after year. If we find one single shell, we're not allowed to do anything within 100 metres, which we think is somewhat unreasonable," said Gerry Zimmermann, council's OBWB representative.
"Say you're putting in a new dock or something like that, then we can understand it. You may want to do some things to get them out of there. But for us, that is going to be very, very difficult and could be very costly."
Given the economic, social and environmental importance of the milfoil program, the OBWB, a collaboration of the three Okanagan regional districts, wants the ministry to waive the new requirements and grandfather milfoil control operations in the same locations that it has done for three decades.
"At a minimum, the water board requests that we be granted long-term permits for our operations, and further, formally requests that the minister acknowledge the importance of social and economic values in establishing regulations," said Wells. And OBWB wants all local governments and First Nations of the Okanagan to support its request.
One of the OBWB's long-term programs is to keep beaches and boating areas clear of milfoil, a densely-growing invasive aquatic weed, explained Wells, noting the Okanagan milfoil program was designed by the B.C. Ministry of Environment and transferred to the OBWB in the 1980s.
"Unless controlled, milfoil growth has a significant negative impact on tourism and quality of life for residents in the Okanagan - significantly impacting the regional economy."
The program, supported entirely by local property taxes, now focuses on keeping public beaches and boating areas clean in major centres, including Kelowna, Vernon, Penticton and Osoyoos.
Current milfoil operations reflect best practices (high efficiency and effectiveness, limited impact outside of treatment areas) and are essential for maintaining the enjoyment of the lakes for Okanagan residents and tourists, said Wells.
"The board's milfoil control program concentrates recreational activities to a small number of areas, and reduces environmental disturbance to other areas. Controlling milfoil also has significant benefits to water quality and fish habitat. In all, the physical extent of milfoil operations (i.e., high-use areas) comprises a small fraction of Okanagan lakeshore."
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada has listed the Rocky Mountain ridged mussel as a species of concern. The Canadian Species at Risk Act listed it as endangered in 2010.
This large freshwater mussel is found in various sizes of lakes and streams where the flow is constant and especially where the bottom is composed of fine material.
They are found in shallow water and may be in deeper water from southern British Columbia to southern California and eastward to southern Idaho and northern Nevada. In Canada, they are mostly limited to the Columbia River system and its tributaries, including the Okanagan and Kootenay rivers, but this species is probably also present in other similar areas in southern B.C.
Like all members of this family of mussels, it is highly sensitive to changes in its environment, such as those affecting the temperature or composition of the water. Because mussels filter large volumes of water to feed, they are susceptible to dissolved pollutants building up in their bodies. The proliferation of exotic species such as zebra mussels is also a source of concern.