Lakers highlight lake threats

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YELLOW BAY — The magnitude of the threat of zebra and quagga mussels infesting Flathead Lake clearly alarmed people at the Flathead Lakers annual meeting last week.

Not only are invasive mussels closer than before, at Lake Mead and other southwest reservoirs, AIS specialist Erik Hanson said it would not be feasible to eradicate them should they become established here.

But preventing them from reaching Flathead waters can work. Since the mussels are primarily moved by boats, making sure boats are clean before launching in Flathead waters is the solution, Hanson said.

He compared the results in Midwest states. In the 23 years since zebra mussels were discovered in the Great Lakes, after being released with ballast water from transoceanic freighters, the mussels have spread to over 200 lakes in Michigan, which failed to take a proactive approach to preventing their spread. In contrast, fewer than 20 lakes have been infested in Minnesota, “the land of 10,000 lakes,” due to an aggressive proactive information and boat inspection program.

Hanson commended the Flathead Lakers and its partners working together on proactive prevention through the Flathead Basin AIS Work Group. It has been Flathead Basin organizations, agencies, citizens and legislators that have pushed for state funding and action that is finally making progress in protecting Montana waters.

Hanson specifically pointed to the new boat inspection station on U.S. Hwy. 93 near Ronan as well as stations on Hwy. 2 at Troy and at the junction of Hwys. 28 and 200 at Plains. Another station at Clearwater Junction will be added soon. More inspection stations are needed on the state’s eastern, southern and northern borders.

Idaho’s boat inspection statistics demonstrate that the threat is growing. Last summer, Idaho inspected 43,000 boats and found eight contaminated with mussels. So far this summer, they have inspected 27,000 and found 23 contaminated. Over half of the contaminated boats were found on Interstate 90 after traveling through Montana. Two boats have been caught and decontaminated in Montana so far this summer.

Hanson emphasized that we can “pay now or we can pay later. But if we pay later we will pay a lot more.”

The mussels attach to any surface in the water. The cost of cleaning and maintaining infrastructure, like water pipes, docks, and dams, runs many millions of dollars in a place like Lake Mead. And estimates based on several areas with mussel infestations indicate that we could expect a 10 to 30 percent decrease in tourism, a 10 to 20 percent increase in utility rates, and a 10 to 20 percent decrease in property values.

Flathead Lakers President Dick Siderius reported that the Flathead Lakers continue to make preventing zebra and quagga mussels from reaching Flathead waters a top priority. He thanked state Senator Verdell Jackson and state Representative Janna Taylor for their hard work to increase statewide funding. But, Siderius said, it is not enough to protect Flathead Lake. This year, the Lakers organization is raising money to dedicate to local prevention work. Contact the Flathead Lakers for more information.

Flathead Lake Biological Station Director Dr. Jack Stanford asked audience members if they had seen an increase, decrease, or no change in algae on rocks around the lake this summer. He was not surprised that all three responses were given, as there has been a tremendous influx of groundwater into the lake this year. Groundwater is naturally higher in nutrients that cause algae growth than the lake water. So areas that receive a lot of groundwater, like Yellow Bay and Skidoo Bay, saw a lot of algae, but other areas saw less or about the same as usual.

His annual State of the Lake report showed no big changes from the long term averages in water quality measures, including primary productivity (the ability of the lake to grow algae) and the amount of oxygen at the bottom of the lake. He warned, however, that the lake remains on a threshold where adding nutrients will produce algal blooms. That means it is important to prevent runoff carrying the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus from reaching the lake.

Stanford also emphasized the importance of maintaining the monitoring program and long-term data record. Gaps in the record can lead to misconceptions about what is happening in the lake. Grants have been secured for equipment, like the new equipment being deployed with the buoys, but with insufficient funding for staff time to collect and analyze water samples, cuts must be made in the monitoring program that compromise the long term record of information.

The biggest impact on the lake has been the changes in the food web, Stanford said. Biological Station scientist Bonnie Ellis recently published her study of food web changes in the lake and their long-term effects in the ecosystem in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Without decades of research and monitoring, the analysis would not have been possible.

Stanford stressed that understanding the irreversible, and often unpredicted detrimental impacts of past introductions of invasive species accentuates the need to prevent new introductions.

Immediate past president Larry Ashcraft remarked on the dedication and passion of Lakeside residents Bruce Ennis and Margaret Davis in achieving their goal of creating a park on the shore of Flathead Lake, as he presented them with the Lakers’ 2011 Stewardship Award. The new Volunteer Park at Lakeside, which includes 190 feet of lake shore and is valued at $3 million, is a tremendous asset for the community and the lake, providing public access to the lake in an area where it had been extremely limited and unsafe. Ennis and Davis removed the old Bayshore Motel from the site, created the park and donated it to Flathead County.

“We’re tickled. It exceeds our expectations,” Davis was quoted in a Daily Inter Lake article. “We knew there was a pent-up demand for this kind of park and we’re delighted with how it’s being used.”

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