Strong borders needed to protect waterways

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A story broke earlier this month out of Spokane, Wash., about a boat being stopped at the Washington-Idaho border. At first blush, it might seem like an odd event to draw news coverage. However, it wasn’t the boat the inspectors were interested in — it’s what was attached to the boat that made them nervous.

What they found on that boat were Zebra mussels. Inspectors are also on the lookout for Quagga mussels. Collectively, we refer to both species of mussels as “invasive” species. These invaders have hard shells, multiply by the hundreds of thousands, and are generally no bigger than a finger nail. We must strengthen our state’s borders to make sure they never take root in our public waterways.

Believe it or not, Russia and Ukraine do pose a big threat to Idaho — the Zebra and Quagga mussels trace their origins to waterways in those countries. Over the past few decades, they have made their way to the United States via overseas cargo ships. They first surfaced in the Great Lakes and have steadily moved West. To date, Idaho has remained “mussel-free” thanks in part to the diligent men and women who protect our borders at inspection stations. They are trained to search and sanitize boats that enter our state. These mussels could be devastating to Idaho.

Just how devastating? One estimate puts the annual price-tag for dealing with these invasive species at $90 million. That’s every year. And that’s just Idaho. As noted, these mussels are very small, but they multiply at a breath-taking rate. They can attach themselves to just about anything — dams, hydroelectric gears, irrigation systems. They can destroy beaches and shorelines. If you fish, farm or boat, you are a potential target of these invasive species. Being a rural legislator representing Camas, Gooding, Lincoln and Blaine counties, that means just about every one of my constituents is at risk.

To date, Zebra or Quagga mussels have not entered Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Alberta, or British Columbia, but they are present in many other Western states. Diligent border inspections and an informed, cooperative public are critical to keeping this vast boundary protected from these invaders. Lake Mead in Nevada and Lakes Powell and Havasu in Arizona are already infested. Boaters who travel to those waters pick up invasive species in their bilge water, or the mussels attach directly to the boats. Once that happens, those boats can transport the mussels to other states (like Idaho).

For about a year, Idaho has been collecting extra money from out-of-state boaters which helps fund prevention efforts. In 2017, we also approved a $3 million increase in the Department of Agriculture budget, primarily to fund boat check stations.

I recently spoke with inspectors at one of the new stations along the Idaho-Montana border. They told me about the frustrations boaters experience when stopped. However, when these inspectors explain the threat invasive species pose to Idaho, most boaters understand. The problem is, these inspectors can only do so much with the funding in place. None of our border check-points are open 24 hours. Many boaters enter our state after dark without being inspected. Furthermore, the federal government needs to step up and take charge of foreign waterways where the mussels are already present. While Idaho is receiving much-needed federal dollars to combat Zebra and Quagga mussels, it would be more effective to inspect boats at the source. Let’s not forget the feds have jurisdiction over Lakes Mead, Powell and Havasu, three of the most mussel-infested waterways in the West. Every boat coming out of those contaminated waterways should be inspected before they leave the shore — let alone cross into another state.

When you search the web for “quagga mussels” or “zebra mussels,” the images of the destruction they cause allows the threat to really sink in. As someone who has represented rural Idaho counties for years, I cringe at the thought of these things getting into irrigation pipes or hydroelectric machinery. I cringe even more at the price-tag of dealing with Zebra and Quagga mussels if they ever get into our state.

Summer boating in Idaho is a generations-long tradition. Please have fun with it. But please understand the threat Idaho faces and support our border inspectors. You don’t want to make the news as the person who brought invasive species into Idaho.

Sen. Michelle Stennett is the Senate Democratic Leader. She represents Lincoln, Camas, Gooding and Blaine counties in the Idaho Legislature.

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