Colorado funding cuts make reservoirs more vulnerable to invasive species
While state funding has started drying up, a noted disturbance remains quite fluid.
Two problematic varieties of freshwater shellfish — the zebra and quagga mussel — are always of concern at area water bodies where they are an aquatic nuisance species, or ANS. Only veligers, the larval form of these harmful mollusks, introduced by boaters who move their watercrafts from state to state and lake to lake, have ever been found by officials in Colorado, and they hope to continue preventing the adults from taking up residence.
“They have these hard fibers that attach and really lock into hard structures,” said Doug Krieger, senior aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). “That could be rocks at the bottom of a lake, but it could also mean water delivery systems. That’s where we get into huge expenses across the United States, in the billions of dollars in terms of monitoring and eliminating these things from clogging up water intakes.”
The mussels also greatly impact ecosystems of the water bodies in which they hostilely enter by removing sizable amounts of plankton and other nutrients that are essential to the diets of native fish. Aside from it being prohibitively expensive to deal with them once they stow away and encrust to a boat, many experts say they’re practically impossible to permanently remove once there.
But the primary funding stream that provides agencies such as CPW the ability to inspect and rid affected boats of these troublesome and difficult-to-spot irritants at many locations just took a major blow. So much so, that as of July 1, no financial source currently exists to continue a detection program at high-risk sites, such as on the White River National Forest, Dillon Reservoir, Green Mountain Reservoir and Ruedi Reservoir near Basalt.
The basics are this: In April, Colorado’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of BP America, the major oil and gas company’s U.S. division, in a suit it filed against the state’s Department of Revenue. The complaint hinged on BP’s stance that costs associated with its processing and transportation of natural gas be tax deductible per a prior Colorado statute.
The court’s decision reversed a lower appellate court’s decision, and now BP — and a number of other oil and gas companies — no longer have to pay the state on these kind of expenses, which diminishes the revenue stream considerably. On top of that, based on the statute of limitations for this type of tax claim, each of these corporations is also able to seek refunds from the state dating back three years, forcing the state to make additional cuts.
Many popular, low-risk boating spots throughout the state rely solely on boater education programs that emphasize prevention through on-site signage. Still, some priority locations like Dillon Reservoir, which is managed by Denver Water, have other pools of money to maintain the inspection process before vessels launch — but then there’s those like Green Mountain, Ruedi and McPhee Reservoir in the southern part of the state.
CPW is far from the only organization affected by the recent court ruling. And many other state programs, such as water supply reserve accounts and species conservation trust funds, which in the past relied on these tax revenues to operate, were already expecting reductions due to decreased oil and gas sales in Colorado the last couple years. But in some cases, such as the ANS initiative that began in 2008, this development now downgrades the line item from several million dollars annually to nothing at all this year, and more can anticipate similar rollbacks for 2017-18 and moving forward.
“We went from $4 million to zero in just a matter of weeks,” said Krieger, pointing out that actual yearly expense is north of $5 million through other contributions. “Although this hit came on July 1, we’re right in the middle of boating season, and we need to continue the program to get us through this season. This basically accelerated our moves and intensified what we have to do with the program to keep it valid.”
Luckily for CPW, which has through the years built an ANS model today copied by many other states, it kept a reserve fund of unspent cash on hand from prior years for its program and will use that to get through the rest of the year. What happens from there, though, is at this point anyone’s guess.
A simple lack of available funds moving forward doesn’t address the purpose of many of these state programs, however, nor the importance that they be preserved. In the case of the ANS initiative, CPW hit an all-time high in 2015 for the number of boats it discovered that possessed mussels with 24. Already this year, inspectors are on pace to break that record, so CPW and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s office mobilized a number of stakeholders on Tuesday, July 5 in Denver for an initial meeting to find ways to work together, locate new funding sources, and carry on.
“We’re a headwater state,” said Noah Koerper, the senator’s central mountain regional director, “and so the fact that reservoirs like Green, Ruedi an McPhee are free of these quagga and zebra species is significant, and it’s important for Colorado and all of the downstream states. These things affect water quality, ecosystems, and we’ve also heard resoundingly that they’re a lot cheaper to prevent and tackle up front than to deal with them once there’s an infestation.”
The working group plans to take what it discussed on Tuesday to determine continue efforts on the issue in the next few months. That will likely include looking at options on both a state and federal level — but certainly trying to keep Colorado’s water from acquiring these costly critters that gum up the works.
“This battle, as we kind of consider it, is getting much tougher,” said Krieger, “just because some of our surrounding states have not been as proactive. We’re starting from scratch and trying to figure out exactly how we’re going to move the program forward from this point on. We know what works, and we’d like to maintain that.”
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