Environment Researchers at Washington State University will use a $630,000 grant as they work to prevent zebra mussels from invading the Columbia River system.
The zebra mussel is a small, striped and tenacious freshwater mollusk that can quickly encrust underwater surfaces. It is an invasive species that has caused significant damage in other parts of the country. They pose an enormous risk to the hydroelectric infrastructure, recreational facilities and ecological system of the Columbia basin.
“Once they are established in the water, they are almost impossible to eradicate,” said Stephen Bollens, director of the WSU School of the Environment and lead investigator, in a prepared statement.
The grant comes from the Bonneville Power Administration and is meant to help ramp up preparations.
The Columbia is one of the last major river systems in the U.S. still free of zebra mussels and the closely related quagga mussels, said a WSU news release.
But that might not last long . According to the Columbia Basin Bulletin website, 2012 boat inspections in Washington, Idaho and Oregon identified more than 110 pontoons and trailered boats carrying the mussels.
An important step in reducing their negative effects is to determine when and where they might be introduced into the water system, Bollens said.
The grant will establish cooperative monitoring standards, increase the quantity and quality of water sample analysis and investigate potential ecological impacts. It also will enable strategic recommendations on where to distribute resources – such as boat inspections and cleaning stations – to slow the spread of the zebra mussel, the press release said.
Both species are native to Eurasia and are believed to have hitchhiked across the Atlantic in the ballast water of shipping vessels. Zebra and quagga mussels were first identified in North America in 1988 in the Great Lakes region.
Although each mussel is small, large colonies can filter enormous quantities of water each day. They consume algae and plankton, leaving the water looking clean and clear but disrupting the native food chain.
“The entire West is on high alert,” said Tim Counihan, research fishery biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Western Fisheries Research Center in Seattle and Bollens’ partner in the mussel investigation.
Zebra and quagga mussels have already caused more than $1 billion in damage in the Great Lakes region. They have clogged or covered everything from fish ladders and spillway grates, to irrigation and municipal water intakes, to dock pilings and outboard motors. In the process, native mussel colonies and small crustaceans such as crayfish often are smothered and destroyed.
In the Columbia River basin, the mussels would be a threat to more than 30 hydroelectric dams and thousands of irrigation and municipal water intakes.
“These small animals have the potential to wreak hundreds of millions of dollars worth of economic damage to the Columbia River hydroelectrical system, as well as impairing native salmon habitat and other food webs,” Counihan said in the release.