Canoes, kayaks may be added to boat inspection program at Lake Whatcom

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 15, 2013 

The Bellingham and Whatcom County councils will consider expanding the boat inspection program intended to intercept invasive mussels, after what officials considered a successful first year.

Both councils in the coming months will decide whether to include canoes and kayaks in the inspections, and whether to offer a discount on season passes to boaters who only use Lake Whatcom or Lake Samish.

The City Council will hear a review of the past summer's aquatic invasive species program at 1:20 p.m. Monday, Nov. 18, at City Hall, 210 Lottie St.

Surveys of boaters taken during inspections this year found three visitors had been in a lake infested with invasive mussels during their most recent trip out of state. Outside of the inspection program, a boat from Chicago bound for Canada was found in Bellingham with quagga mussels, according to Chris Brueske of county Public Works.

"There is an annual manifestation of that risk. ... We do have the boats coming into this area," said Clare Fogelsong, environmental resources manager with Bellingham Public Works. Fogelsong and Brueske reported on the boat inspection program to the County Council on Tuesday, Nov. 12.

County Council member Sam Crawford was satisfied with the program, saying it "in some ways exceeded my expectations," yet wondered whether it was worth the cost. After spending $314,000 this year on start-up costs and eight inspectors, county and city staffs estimate that an expanded program in 2014 with 10 to 12 inspectors would cost between $298,000 and $324,000.

Boater fees brought in more than $103,000 this year; that goes toward next year's costs. The city, the county and the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District would cover the balance.

"I'm wondering if the ounce of prevention is really going to be worth the pound of cure, or is the ratio somewhat different," Crawford said.

Brueske said the council could either agree to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars now, or be prepared to spend millions later to combat the mussels once they enter the lake.

He has spoken to officials from agencies in the Southwest who manage lakes that are already infested.

"The message from them is always real clear: The cost you have in prevention is just a tiny fraction of what they're actually spending in dealing with it," Brueske said.

Zebra and quagga mussels, which are native to Eastern Europe, have invaded many lakes and rivers in North America. They grow in masses that can clog water pipes and foul boats, beaches and docks.

Although the mussels are the species of greatest concern, the city's invasive species ordinance contains a long list of plants and animals that officials hope to keep out of the lake, which is the drinking water source for the Bellingham area.

From the 3,192 inspections conducted this year, four boats needed to be decontaminated with a high-temperature, high-pressure wash. These boats had vegetation or algae that couldn't be identified, Fogelsong said.

City and county council members agree the state needs to play a more aggressive role in stopping invasive mussels from crossing state lines. Legislation for a statewide program is being prepared for debate next year.

City Council member Cathy Lehman said it was "asinine" that local governments must set up separate aquatic invasive species, or AIS, programs when a robust state program could do a lot to prevent the spread of the mussels. Still, governments in this county need to remain vigilant, she said.

"We're different in that we drink from (Lake Whatcom)," Lehman said. "AIS are a concern to a lot of communities in this state, but it's more of a concern for us."

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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