State bill would help Whatcom County, Bellingham handle mussel threat

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJanuary 23, 2014 

lake whatcom boat inspections

As new owners Ken and Trish Larson watch, Scott Gilles, right, loads their boat on to a trailer at Bloedel Donovan Park after a tour around Lake Whatcom on Thursday March 8, 2012 in Bellingham. City official are beginning a mandatory inspection program for most boats on Lake Whatcom in 2013, to avoid introduction of harmful invasive species such as zebra mussels.

ANDY BRONSON — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

Companion bills in the state House and Senate would expand the state's authority to stop boaters from importing invasive mussels. As the bill works its way through the state Legislature, Whatcom County and Bellingham officials will decide how to fine-tune their own boat-inspection program, started last year, to prevent zebra and quagga mussels from entering Lake Whatcom.

County Council members appear to favor including canoes and kayaks in the mandatory inspections this year. If approved, a $10 fee would be charged to kayakers and canoeists for a season pass.

The bill in the Legislature is off to a promising start; sponsors include legislators from both parties. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, is one of the sponsors of the Senate bill. In the House, three of four Whatcom representatives are signed on: Vincent Buys, R-Lynden, Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, and Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon.

The Senate hearing was Tuesday, Jan. 21. The hearing in the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources starts at 8 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 23.

Senate Bill 6040 and House Bill 2458, which are identical, would enable Department of Fish & Wildlife officers to inspect any type of watercraft, or anything else that could transport invasive species, down to fishing gear. The state could quarantine a lake found to be infected with invasive mussels, and take emergency actions to eradicate the invaders.

How much the department would be able to exercise the additional authority would depend on funding.

Under the bill, introducing zebra or quagga mussels to state waters would be a felony.

The eastern European zebra and quagga mussels were first documented in the U.S. on the Great Lakes in 1988. Within two decades, they had spread to California. The shellfish grow in masses that can clog water pipes and foul boats, beaches and docks.

A survey taken last year at Lake Whatcom found that three boaters had been in a lake infested with invasive mussels during their most recent trip out of state. Lake Whatcom is the source of drinking water for about 100,000 residents.

County Council members held a work session Tuesday, Jan. 21, to consider changes to the local program. Along with an inspection requirement for kayaks and canoes, the council may add an online course that would give boaters a $10 discount on their pass - effectively making the kayak and canoe passes free. The season pass for a larger craft is $50.

The county and city must agree on the same set of changes. Both councils will consider ordinances updating the invasive species inspection program in February, said Clare Fogelsong, Bellingham's environmental resources manager.

City and county officials were part of a focus group that helped write the bill, Fogelsong said. The bill has solid support among local elected officials.

"I am in favor of the state taking the bulk of the responsibility for this," County Council member Sam Crawford said. "I think that doing it lake by lake, county by county, is not an effective way to address this."

Local officials also would like the state to relieve them of the financial burden of the invasive species program. It's too early to say whether the Legislature will fund the provisions in the bill.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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