How far would you go and what would you pay to protect the world-class waters of the Flathead Basin?
It is hard to put a price tag on the cold, clear waters where we boat, swim, and fish, and which we use as a source for drinking. We value them for quality of life reasons, but in terms of dollars we can consider these economists’ estimates as cited by the Flathead Biological Station:
• Flathead Lake boosts shoreline property values by $6-$8 billion.
• Nature-based tourism dependent upon a healthy Flathead Lake-River System accounts for roughly 20 percent of the $7.8 billion annual economy of Flathead and Lake counties.
• Ecological services (such as water supply and purification, and flood and drought mitigation) contribute another $20 billion in benefits to human society.
A serious threat to these valuable assets has arrived on our doorstep, and we should all be concerned. Recently, aquatic invasive mussels were detected in the Tiber Reservoir and Canyon Ferry, just a short drive from the Flathead. These tiny hitchhiking natural disasters cost billions in damage annually in the U.S to irrigation systems, water intakes, hydropower dams and private property.
If invasive mussels become established in our waters, the entire ecosystem will be forever changed. These tiny filter feeders can release 40,000 eggs per year, and they filter out all the food upon which all our fish depend. The mussels collapse fisheries, coat beaches with sharp shells, create toxic algae blooms and cause property values to plummet. There is currently no means to eradicate them once they are established. It is imperative that we immediately initiate an effective inspection program to keep them out of our waters.
Legislation is currently pending that will hopefully prevent the spread of these mussels. This legislation calls for inspection stations at key entry points for Montana (known as a perimeter defense). However, in order to be successful, additional actions are needed:
1. Create a Flathead Pilot Program overseen by the Flathead Basin Commission requiring inspection of all boats prior to launch. Additional layers of protection would provide a more effective defense. Inspections need to begin as soon as possible because snowbirds are now returning to Montana with boats that are potentially infected. Idaho has already intercepted two mussel-fouled boats. In addition, there needs to be a way for local boaters to be accommodated, boat ramps that can be gated if personnel are not available and a program to track inspected boats.
The FBC has shown tremendous leadership and expertise in the fight to protect the basin. They have the ability to work effectively with federal, state, local, tribal and Canadian entities. This year, the FBC opened the Clearwater station March 2, and partnered with CSKT to open the Pablo station on March 3. The Browning station, operated in partnership with the Blackfeet Tribe, is opened March 10 Since 2008, the FBC’s commitment to AIS protection has been consistently demonstrated by its on-the-ground actions and innovative approach to AIS prevention.
2. Infected boats must be prevented from launching in other bodies of water. All boats must be decontaminated when leaving infected waters, and launch sites must be gated if decontamination is not available or inspectors are not on site. Local boaters could be accommodated if an effective boater tracking system was established.
3. Should a body of water become infected, it must be closed until a functional containment plan is fully implemented.
4. Enforcement is a critical component of success. Fines must be increased for boaters who do not comply. Additional enforcement personnel must be available to track down boaters who bypass stations or try to launch without inspection. Enforcement funding could be enhanced by allowing local governments the authority to adopt and enforce AIS ordinances.
5. A fee-based program would help fund the additional costs, as is done in Idaho. Launching a boat in our state waters is a privilege and a small fee for a sticker would help defray costs.
What can you do? Contact your legislator and request robust legislation that includes the steps described above. Comment on the proposed Fish Wildlife and Parks rule changes by either attending a public hearing on March 14 at 6 pm at the FWP office in Helena or by going to: http://fwp.mt.gov/news/publicNotices/rules/pn_0224.html.
It is never easy to add money to a budget. But with invasive mussels on our doorstep, the choice is clear. We can invest in an effective inspection program now, or we can lose our high-quality waters and fisheries and spend millions in mitigation later.