‘I’m just so angry’: Green Mountain Reservoir falls victim to invasive mussel

Kevin Fixler
The dock during low water levels seen on June 10, 2017, at Green Mountain Reservoir on the north end of Summit County. Questions remain over who should be required to cover boat inspection and decontamination costs to prevent the recent contamination by an invasive mussel species.
Hugh Carey / |

After years of dodging infection, officials announced Tuesday that the invasive quagga mussel has come to Summit County’s Green Mountain Reservoir. The dreaded species revealed itself in mid-August, immediately setting off distress signals and heightened alert.

The non-native mollusk is branded an aquatic nuisance species in Colorado and the region’s waterways, due to its ability to drastically alter local ecosystems, degrade water quality, as well as severely damage costly dam and hydroelectric infrastructure. Annual efforts to prevent the appearance of the freshwater shellfish are ongoing, but recent monitoring conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the reservoir, found the creature’s larvae — known as veligers — there for the first time.

Once a boat is launched in tainted waters, the destructive critters can latch onto the underside of vessels and the inner workings of motors. If not caught and removed during mandatory inspection and decontamination processes, they can they detach in the new water body and spread the affliction. Colorado Parks and Wildlife is unsure how veligers entered the water, but think at some point a boat may have launched illegally.

“It is quite serious,” said Elizabeth Brown, CPW’s statewide invasive species coordinator. “We’ve been intercepting more and more boats with them every year as more neighboring states have had more of them every single year. However, we have successfully kind of reversed that invasion in places like Pueblo in the past, so we can do it again here but we really need the public’s help.”

Aside from Pueblo Reservoir, a total of seven state bodies of water have confirmed the presence of veligers since 2008, including Granby Reservoir, Grand Lake, Willow Creek and Shadow Mountain Lake each in neighboring Grand County. Green Mountain makes the ninth, and is now elevated to a top-priority status for state dollars during a three-year window to remove it from the contamination list.

“I’m just so angry,” said County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier, who also sits on several regional water quality committees. “We’ve had these conference calls, and meetings and meetings and meetings talking about this, and the bottom line is the Bureau of Rec just never comes through, and it’s their responsibility.”

Funding Drain

At the source of much of the frustration is a continued debate over which organization should be funding the annual launch-site inspections out of Green Mountain’s Heeney Marina. CPW used to foot the bill, but shrinking budgets have hindered its ability to solely take on the $50,000-$80,000 expense.

The U.S. Forest Service — another federal agency with dwindling yearly funding allocations — covered the cost for five years before that, and also kicked in chunks for 2017 to maintain the prevention program and keep mussels from entering Green Mountain. It, too, can hardly afford the expenditure, but together the two delivered in the 11th hour when no other funding streams could be located.

“That’s taking money away from work both those agencies need to be doing,” said Stiegelmeier. “It’s just plain not fair for those agencies to be cobbling together money to do what Reclamation should be doing. They have this pot of money and can spend millions of dollars after they invade, but they won’t spend $50,000 to prevent it.”

The county also does not believe the effort to be its responsibility, because it does not fall within its jurisdiction, nor does it wish to provide a bailout for what it firmly feels is the Bureau of Reclamation’s duty. To do so for even one year, Stiegelmeier said, would be a “slippery slope” where the county would then be expected to contribute annually.

Murky Solution

While the U.S. Department of the Interior branch does own and oversee the reservoir and related dam, it does not manage recreation on its holdings and merely authorizes these activities by partner agencies. Only in a handful of special circumstances is the Bureau of Reclamation allowed to dispense congressionally appropriated dollars toward paying for inspectors.

“We don’t have the ability to fund labor associated with inspections,” said Tony Curtis, of the bureau’s Eastern Colorado Area Office. “What we do fund is the construction of the watercraft inspection stations, and the equipment used there, we just can’t fund the manpower.”

The regional office also noted it was the agency that discovered the mussel scare — not CPW, the U.S. Forest Service or the county — and that it already has a request in for funding a new decontamination station and associated utilities at Heeney Marina for fiscal year 2018. If approved, that money would become available Oct. 1, though it won’t be known if that will be funded until Congress passes its next budget.

For now, the focus becomes stopping additional mussel larvae from entering Green Mountain through increased monitoring and ramped up inspections, particularly as we approach the Labor Day holiday popular with boaters. That, and Summit County plans to send another in a set of letters to the state’s representation in U.S. Congress, as well as Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke, demanding a long-term funding solution.

Were Green Mountain to be colonized by a population or reproducing adult mussels, which can take between three and five years to arise, it’ll be Zinke’s department left holding the bill for attempted clean-up. The price tag would be millions upon millions in taxpayer money.

“If infestation did occur in the future, they’re responsible for ongoing operations to keep infrastructure operational, and that’s where the costs really go up,” said Brown. “There are no control methods, and no way to eradicate them. Once they’re there and hit that infestation stage — and we’re years away from that, and hopefully never see that — but if that were to occur, that would become a responsibility of (the Bureau of Reclamation).”

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