Colorado senate passes law that could help Summit County fend off mussel invasion

Colorado's senate passed the Mussel-Free Colorado Act on Tuesday, which will create a funding source for preventing mussel infestations at water bodies like Summit's own Green Mountain Reservoir.
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Funding to stop the invasion of alien mussels is well on its way to becoming a reality as the Colorado Senate voted Tuesday to pass the Mussel-Free Colorado Act, a bill intended to control and prevent the infestation of the aquatic nuisance in state waterways.

The bill, which passed by a 24-10 vote in the senate and heads back to the House next before reaching the governor’s desk, will levy a $25 annual fee to domestic boaters and $50 to out-of-state boaters for mussel mitigation efforts starting next year. The fee will be paid in addition to the regular annual registration fee for boaters. The fund will be entirely self-sustaining through fee increases tied to the consumer price index, and will not require taxpayer support.

If passed, the act will provide a critical funding pipeline for preventing the spread of aquatic nuisance species like the quagga mussel. When it reaches adulthood, the fingernail-sized mussel latches onto anything and has the potential of damaging water infrastructure, such as dam turbines and water filtration systems.

The quagga is a filter feeder native to Eastern Europe which can multiply in the millions within a few years. The mussel can render entire bodies of water sterile by gobbling up all available nutrients for itself and wreak havoc in the food chain. Once a quagga infestation begins, it is virtually impossible to stop or eliminate and costs millions to mitigate.

Green Mountain Reservoir in Heeney had a scare last August when mussel larvae were detected in a water quality sample tested by the Bureau of Land Management. The larvae have not been detected since, but the very prospect of an infestation was enough for federal, state and local authorities to begin extensive monitoring at the lake and enforcing strict measures to decontaminate all boats before they are allowed to enter.

Aside from providing a funding source, the bill also stiffens financial penalties for boaters who do not comply with decontamination procedures and makes them pay for quarantine costs should boaters bypass the normal protocol. The bill urges the federal government to do a better job of inspecting boats coming in and out of federal-owned waterways.

The bill has received bipartisan support, however Summit’s own state senator, Randy Baumgardner, was one of 10 senators to vote no on the measure. As of publication, Baumgardner’s office did not return a request for comment as to why he opposes the bill.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife released a factsheet in January supporting passage of the bill, citing the danger of mussels like the quagga and the costs associated with an infestation.

“For example,” the fact sheet notes, “the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California will spend $10–15 million annually in operations and maintenance costs to address quagga mussel infestation in its Colorado River Aqueduct and terminal reservoirs.”

County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier, a vocal proponent of the act at the local level, said she was “thrilled” by the positive progress of the bill.

“I did feel pretty confident it would make it through,” Stiegelmeier said. “And that will we have some base amount of funding needed moving forward to deal with mussel invasions across Colorado.”

Stiegelmeier also wanted to give boaters and Summit residents a heads-up about major infrastructure projects going on this summer to ensure proper boat inspection at Heeney Marina, where all reservoir boat traffic will be funneled.

“It’s important for people to know that there will be a lot of changes at Green Mountain this summer,” Stiegelmeier said. “There will be major reconstruction of the boat launch there, as well as closure of abandoned entries to the lake.”

The county has yet to make a formal announcement about the plans at the marina, which will also include extensive roadwork on Highway 9.

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