A Montana government official had a sobering message for Okanagan Thompson region residents about the economic and ecological impact should invasive mussels be detected in local waterways.
Stephanie Hester, coordinator of the Montana invasive species council, says her state is learning a hard lesson about the realities of responding to a mussel confirmation in two different reservoirs last fall.
“This has been a game changer for Montana,” Hester said at a public forum held Tuesday night at Okanagan College in Penticton.
“When you get a detection like we’ve had now in our state, it affects every Montanan so all government agencies and people across our state have had to pull together to implement a response plan and develop a longer term strategy.”
Hester was a guest speaker at the invasive mussel forum, put on by the Okanagan Similkameen Invasive Species Society.
Hester said Montana has rallied together to combat an ecological and economic disaster if the mussel detections last fall are compounded by further discoveries this year.
That’s because the impact of invasive mussels is immediate and disastrous—becoming the dominant mono-species of a waterway; mussel shells littering beaches making them all but un-walkable; hydro power stations forced to deal with mussel-clogged infrastructure.
“There is no way to eradicate them so the mitigation costs to deal with an infestation is long-term and expensive,” Hester said.
She said a study on the Columbia River Water Basin, which encroaches into Montana on the west side of the Rocky Mountains, estimated the invasive mussel mitigation costs at $500 million a year.
In Montana, based only on the discovery of invasive mussel larvae, the cost of the response program has escalated from $1.2 million a year to $6 million annually for the next two years.
Hester said while public education and stringent boat decontamination and inspection station programs are important, Montana’s lesson is to be prepared to respond to what she says is almost inevitable.
“We had a plan in place to respond but we never did what we call a tabletop exercise to go through it step by step and analyze how various government agencies would be affected and how they are prepared to respond,” Hester said.
“In Montana, it was chaos for the first little while after the mussel detection and it’s taken us until now to get organized and be ready should another detection occur.”
Lisa Scott, with the invasive species society, echoed Hester’s sentiments, saying an invasive mussel detection in the Okanagan would have “a huge impact on all our pocketbooks.”
“Six years ago, I was all excited about the campaign to keep the mussels out, and today it’s sad to realize it may not be a matter of if but when. All it takes is one boat bringing in mussels that get out into the lake and multiply, and the Okanagan will change forever,” Scott said.
Dan Ashton, the incumbent Liberal MLA for Penticton and president of the Pacific NorthWwest Economic Region (PENWR), also spoke at the meeting, saying invasive mussels are a concern for PENWR members on both sides of the border.
He said mitigation efforts in B.C. are estimated at $50 million a year if the mussels take hold in our province and spread. In Alberta, that estimate is put at $75 million.
“It’s certainly not inconceivable that could happen so we have to do everything we can to make damn sure these things don’t come our way,” said Ashton.
“Montana is the sharp end of the stick for this right now. The fuse has been lit so we have to be prepared to get outside of our own silos within government agencies and work together to be prepared to respond.”