Mussels threaten Colorado mountain waters |

Mussels threaten Colorado mountain waters

Bob Berwyn
Summit County Correspondent

SUMMIT COUNTY ” As the snow and ice start to melt off local waters, wildlife officials and water managers will be keeping a close eye out for unwanted aquatic hitchhikers that could make their way into High Country lakes and streams.

Zebra mussels and a non-native aquatic plant known as snot algae could devastate fisheries and gum up reservoir works, ultimately costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

“The mussels are wreaking havoc on waterways in the eastern U.S.,” said Colorado Division of Wildlife biologist Tom Kroening, the agency’s manager for Summit County.

In the East, governments have already spent billions of dollars trying to eradicate the unwanted pests. Once the mollusks have established themselves, it’s almost impossible to get rid of them, Kroening said.

The mussels, native to eastern Europe and western Asia, can wipe out an aquatic ecosystem from the bottom up. They feed by filtering tiny organisms out of the water, including single-celled plankton that forms the basis of the food chain in Summit County’s lakes and streams.

“That’s the doomsday scenario, the really scary thing,” said aquatic biologist Jon Ewert. “It knocks out the base of the food chain. There’s no way to sound the alarm too loud on this.”

With the discovery of zebra mussel larvae in Pueblo Reservoir, Colorado officials want boaters to take extra care to avoid spreading them into clean lakes and rivers. The mussels generally attach themselves to boat hulls and the larvae can also persist in bilge and ballast water.

“It’s unlawful for anyone to possess or transport non-native species,” said Bob Thompson, the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s assistant law enforcement chief.

State wildlife officers have some enforcement tools, including an emergency ordinance that allows boat inspections. But the agency mostly will rely on outreach to try and educate boaters.

“The problem is they’re so small, they are easily overlooked,” Thompson said. “They can grow on anything … grates, culverts, hydroelectric systems … the only way to get rid of them is to dry them up,” Thompson said. “Boaters need to really inspect their boats, drain all the water out of their motors and bilges.”

The key is to carefully inspect boats for signs of the mussels or larvae, said Bob Evans, manager of the Dillon Marina, one of the hubs for boating activities on Dillon Reservoir.

“You need to keep your boat dry for a week before transporting it between reservoirs.” Evans said. Bilges also need to be cleaned out and dried, and motors run to get the water out of them before launching a boat in a new lake or reservoir, Evans said.

The rock snot algae may not be as big a threat to Dillon Reservoir as the zebra mussels, but the single-celled organism is already spreading in parts of the Colorado River Basin.

“It looks like dirty toilet paper. When the flows come up, it tears loose and it can form nuisance blooms,” Ewert said. The algae can harm the insects that fish eat, he explained.

The colder water temperatures of Dillon Reservoir probably would inhibit the growth of the algae, Ewert said. The problem is most prevalent in streams with warmer water and low flows.

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