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What's at stake as Idaho evaluates mussel eradication effort

After quagga mussels were detected in the Snake River, ISDA set up boat decontamination stations in Twin Falls. It asked everyone who had been in the water during a month-long stretch to get their boats, kayaks and fishing gear cleaned.
Rachel Cohen
/
Boise State Public Radio
After quagga mussels were detected in the Snake River, ISDA set up boat decontamination stations in Twin Falls. It asked everyone who had been in the water during a month-long stretch to get their boats, kayaks and fishing gear cleaned.

Michael Stephenson has spent years worrying about a tiny invasive creature smaller than a fingernail. Then, last fall, they arrived. The larval form of quagga mussels and one adult were found in the Snake River near Twin Falls.

“I’m feeling very anxious about it,” said Stephenson, who works as a biologist at Idaho Power. The company operates 17 hydroelectric plants on the Snake River and its tributaries, 15 of which are downstream of where quagga mussels were detected.

Stephenson said the small bivalves are a big problem. They spread rapidly – a female can produce a million eggs each year – and they attach to pretty much any surface in the water. They can clog intakes for drinking and irrigation water systems, and hydroelectric turbines.

The Columbia River Basin is the only major river system in the country without an invasive mussel infestation. The Pacific NorthWest Economic Region estimates it would cost the Northwest $500 million a year to deal with.

On top of an Idaho Power dam near Hagerman, Stephenson points to a metal filter where water flows from the reservoir into the power house. It’s one of the initial points where quagga mussels could interfere with the system. They’d start to encrust the steel bars, Stephenson said, reducing the amount of water entering the dam.

The company currently uses a mechanical rake to keep sticks and vegetation out, but prying quagga mussels off could require scuba divers. The mussels could also target other pipes that bring in water to cool the system as the turbines are spinning; without the cold water, they could overheat.

After a visit to the southwest to see how the operators of Hoover Dam handle quagga mussels in Lake Mead, Idaho Power is considering buying special ultraviolet lights to kill baby mussels floating through its facilities.

“If we get an infestation in the Snake River, it may be the biggest problem we've dealt with yet, as far as infrastructural issues,” Stephenson said.

Michael Stephenson, a biologist at Idaho Power, is investigating how quagga mussels in the Snake River could affect hydropower operations and how the company can prepare.
Rachel Cohen
/
Boise State Public Radio
Michael Stephenson, a biologist at Idaho Power, is investigating how quagga mussels in the Snake River could affect hydropower operations and how the company can prepare.

Last fall, Idaho poured a copper-based chemical into the river to try to eradicate the mussels. Similar toxins have worked to kill mussels elsewhere, but this treatment, in a major river, was unprecedented.

“That’s been weighing quite a bit on my mind,” said Nic Zurfluh, the invasive species bureau chief for the Idaho State Department of Agriculture. “Just gauging how effective the treatment was last fall.”

Zurfluh said it’s been a long winter of waiting to see if the mussels are gone. They stop reproducing in colder months so they’re not easily detectable then. As the temperatures warm, Zurfluh’s team will begin collecting water samples around the state with an emphasis on the Snake River near Twin Falls, searching for signs of mussels.

Quagga Mussels infesting an Idaho license plate.
Sen. Michelle Stennett
/
Jeremy J. Gugino
Quagga Mussels infesting an Idaho license plate.

Thanks to money from the legislature, those efforts will double in scale this summer. But Zurfluh cautions that answers might take time.

“Not having detections, I would take that as really great news,” he said.”But just knowing that's not going to tell the full picture until we go quite a little while with non-detects.”

The tiny mussels are hard to find. It might take a few months, even a few years, to get an “all-clear.”


If the mussels are still around and float downstream they could pose a big threat to anadromous fish that migrate from inland spawning grounds to the ocean and bring vital nutrients back – nutrients the quagga mussels absorb. The mussels are expert filter feeders, said Anthony Capetillo, an invasive species biologist with the Nez Perce Tribe and a tribal member.

“If the quagga mussels are sucking all the oxygen and all the nutrients out of the water, then that takes away from the fish, so they're not able to grow as they usually would,” Capetillo said.

Salmon in particular, he says, are already suffering because of dams and climate change, and quagga mussels, with their sharp shells coating fish ladders, could make their migration journeys more treacherous.

“All the money that we've been putting into all these projects to get these salmon and steelhead and lamprey back into these waters,” Capetillo said. “All of that could potentially be for nothing if we allow these invasives to come and take hold.”

A lot is at stake, he said, for a region that values clean water and access to the outdoors, but perhaps even more so for tribal communities.

“If we do lose parts of our identity,” he said, “lose our resources, we can't really measure what those losses are.”

Even further downstream, Justin Bush, the aquatic invasive species policy coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said it could take as little as a week for floating veligers to make it from Twin Falls to that state’s borders.

“We feel like this threat is right on our doorstep,” he said. “It's causing us to think about a new timeline, new actions, and new levels of funding that will be required in both the short and long term.”

Last fall, as soon as the mussels were detected in Idaho, Washington deployed its monitoring crews closer to the border. They didn’t turn anything up.

Now, the state will have a specific Snake River mussel monitoring team, fully-staffed boat check stations in the southeast region and a new mussel-sniffing dog.

“All eyes are on Idaho and we're waiting for more information,” Bush said.

Idaho officials hope their eradication efforts have staved off an infestation, Zurfluh said.

At the Twin Falls waterfront, the state is requiring all boats entering and leaving the river to be washed down to contain any remaining mussels from spreading to other water bodies. Plus, prevention is still key, Zurfluh said. It would just take a single boat or kayak carrying new mussels to spark another introduction tomorrow.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on X @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2024 Boise State Public Radio

ISDA hopes the chemical treatment will eradicate the quagga mussel before a population takes hold in the Snake River.
Rachel Cohen
/
Boise State Public Radio
ISDA hopes the chemical treatment will eradicate the quagga mussel before a population takes hold in the Snake River.

Copyright 2024 Boise State Public Radio News

Rachel Cohen joined Boise State Public Radio in 2019 as a Report for America corps member. She is the station's Twin Falls-based reporter, covering the Magic Valley and the Wood River Valley.

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