Grand County’s Three Lakes region left vulnerable to invasive species
March 23, 2017
Grand County's Three Lakes region could be increasingly vulnerable to invasive species next year if funding sources for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife's boat inspection program are not secured in the near future.
In 2008, Colorado legislators passed a law requiring boat inspections and decontamination for boats going onto the state's water bodies. Since its inception, the Aquatic Nuisance Species program, designed to keep non-native mussels from infiltrating the state's lakes and reservoirs, has been funded through severance tax dollars. However, that revenue stream is taking a major hit.
In the spring of 2016, the Colorado Supreme Court reviewed a case brought forward by BP America arguing the state had improperly collected millions in severance tax dollars. The court ruled in favor of BP and required the state to issue refunds. The decision itself was not related to the species program, but the impacts will soon be felt in Grand County. It now looks likely that there will be no boat inspections on the Three Lakes this year.
"Unfortunately, due to nothing we did, we found ourselves without a budget this year," said Elizabeth Brown, Parks and Wildlife. "We have been working pretty much nonstop to try to fund for an inspection program but we still don't know if we will or won't have inspectors this year." Brown said the Three Lakes region is "very high-risk waters for invasion."
She said the cost for inspectors on the Three Lakes alone averages around $380,000 per year. The total state budget for the inspector program is roughly $4.5 million. She said almost the entirety of the cost is tied up in staff time. Inspectors typically operate from sunrise to sunset from May through October on the Three Lakes. Inspectors are located at five different boat ramps within the network.
Inspectors are looking for zebra or quagga mussels, which are invasive bivalves that were first introduced to the U.S. in the Great Lakes region in the 1980s. "The inspectors are looking at the hull, the trailer, the engine and any parts of the boat that can carry water," Brown said. "They are looking at places the mussels can attach to. Our inspectors remove vegetation and other organic material, like mud, that can hide these animals."
Brown explained the mussels are microscopic in the early stages of their lives and cannot be seen by the naked eye. When fully grown, the two species of mussels reach roughly 1 inch in size. "We spend a lot of time draining boats and making sure we are not moving water from one lake to another," Brown said.
Brown said the inspections themselves can be performed very quickly if boat owners have their vessels cleaned, drained and dry. "If we find something, we have to decontaminate the boat."
The invasive mussels pose multiple threats to the vitality and quality of water bodies they impact. "From a natural resources standpoint, they will outcompete native species for food and space and disrupt the aquatic food web," Brown explained. "From a recreation standpoint they can clog boat motors and pumps and cause costly damage to boats themselves. They reproduce rapidly, and in places like Lake Mead and Kansas, where they have been for a while, they cover the shorelines with sharp shells."
The economic impact is significant, Brown said.
"There is no way to control them once they get in," she said. "You can't treat for them. It becomes expensive to move water to homes and farms and hydropower plants and industry sites. The cost of water becomes very expensive."
For Grand County, mussels present a clear and present danger. In June 2016, an inspector caught a boat with a number of mussels attempting to enter Lake Granby. Inspector Fred Ernst made the discovery just before the Fourth of July weekend. It was the first time a boat entering the Three Lakes was found contaminated since 2009, when an inspector caught a mussel-encrusted boat heading into Shadow Mountain Reservoir.
The invasive species were first found in Colorado in 2008, when positive identifications of juvenile mussels were found in Shadow Mountain Reservoir and Pueblo Reservoir, along with seven other area water bodies. Brown said the state's concern about the species has continued to grow over time.
"Statewide we caught more boats with mussels in 2016 than we did in 2015 and more in 2015 than in 2014," Brown said. "The number of infested boats is increasing annually."
Brown said the increases in Colorado are related to increases in the number of infestation sites in other locations. "This program has allowed us to keep them out," Brown said. "We have a program that really works well and we are trying very hard to keep it going."
Parks and Wildlife is working with stakeholder groups throughout the state in an attempt to raise the funds for the inspector program. Brown said CPW is willing to work with anyone who is interested in protecting the local waters.
The fundraising efforts for the program are localized, so money raised towards boat inspections will primarily be directed at local water bodies. CPW has already formed a partnership with Larimer County and Northern Water to provide funding for inspectors on Horsetooth Reservoir and Carter Lake.
If you are interested in working with CPW to find a funding solution for the ANS Boat Inspector Program you can contact the Denver Office of Colorado Parks and Wildlife.