AIS report quantifies estimated economic damage of invasive mussel infestation in Montana

Char-Koosta News 

There are only two outcomes in the tight wire war against the Aquatic Invasive Species — quagga and zebra mussels: victory or defeat. Both are costly but invasion of aquatic mussels is much more costly than persistent vigilance. That is essentially the picture painted in a report prepared by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation in cahoots with the Montana Invasive Species Council (MISC), the Flathead Lake Bio Station and the National Invasive Species Council, a quagga and zebra mussel worst case invasion would cost Montana an estimated $234 million per year in damages to the state economy. The $234 million cost is the worst-case scenario estimate an invasive mussel puts the recreation, agriculture and infrastructure as well as government revenue. 

The report was prepared by the Flathead Lake Bio Station and released last Thursday by the MISC to inform Montana legislators on the costs of an invasion and the need for a comprehensive and appropriately funded battle plan. The release is a couple of weeks prior to the Montana House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee hearing on renewal of state funding for combating potential invasive mussel infestation. Perhaps the main bill is the one that will make the funding of the AIS effort permanent instead of a funding line item in the biennial budget. The state presently funds the AIS effort to the tune of nearly $7 million a year.

According to Eric Hanson, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Natural Resource Department Aquatic Invasive Species specialist, the permanent funding will aid in planning efforts. It will make permanent fees from fishing licenses and boat sticker fees, as well as state general funds, will fill the AIS combat purse. 

“The commitment to permanent funding allows for better planning, establishment of permanent organizational structure, better enforcement of regulations and longer hours at check stations,” he said. “The Tribes (CSKT) are committed to and are a big part of keeping the mussels out of the Flathead River Basin. The tribal check station at Ravalli is the only one in the state that was open 24 hours a day and seven days a week. They were opened earlier and stayed open later in the summer tourist season than state stations. They (CSKT) know that the environmental threat is real and the negative economic impacts of a mussel invasion are real. It will affect the Tribes, yes, and it will affect the public.”

State inspection stations were generally opened either eight or 12 hours a day. In its annual report released earlier this year, the MISC acknowledged lessons learned and planned on making adjustments. The state, for instance, will relocate some check stations in eastern Montana due to traffic flows. 

“We had about 15 percent drive-bys at Ravalli but the big thing we had there was an incredible amount of law enforcement help,” Hanson said. “Very few people drove by the station and those that did were caught by law enforcement and brought back to the check station. Some didn’t like being checked, it was an inconvenience to them but once they heard the reasons for the checks they were more understanding of the process. Some were not so understanding but their watercraft was inspected — a good ending for us.”

Montana already has detected mussels within its borders, heretofore east of the Continental Divide. In the fall of 2016 invasive mussel larvae were detected in Tiber Reservoir, southwest of Chester. The reservoir is fed by the Marias River that eventually drains into the Missouri River. Also at that time there was suspect detection of mussel larvae in Canyon Ferry Reservoir east of Helena. Its water also flows into the Missouri River. 

In both cases, the larvae were carried in by unclean watercraft, the main way AIS are transported. Thankfully and/or luckily so far, the larvae in Tabor appear to have been a small population that haven’t become established in that water body. The suspect larvae in Canyon Ferry were just that, suspect that didn’t pan out.

Heretofore the gauntlet set in the west flowing Flathead River Basin to ward off a potential quagga and zebra mussel invasion has proved effective. The Flathead River Basin is the headwaters of the Columbia River Basin, the last major river basin in America that hasn’t been invaded by the quagga and zebra mussel.

Recreation, a big driving wheel to the state and local economy, would be negatively impacted by an estimated $122 million per year. An invasion would severely damage the state’s fisheries, a big recreation and tourist draw. An invasion would damage boats, motors and recreational equipment. Mussels could also be a pain to water recreationalists when they get established on docks, beaches, boat ramps, and watercraft. 

Agriculture, a big cog in the state’s economy, would be negatively impacted by $61 million per year. There are 2.5 million acres of irrigated land in the state, which accounts to 96 percent of surface water withdrawals. An invasive mussels can infest irrigation system reservoirs, feeder water bodies, pipelines and canals as well clog irrigation pumps, screens and head gates, thus reducing pumping capacity. Combatting the invasion breaks down to an estimated additional charge of $5.75 per acre-foot of water due to increased operation and maintenance needs. 

Infrastructure related to hydropower, thermoelectric power, industrial operations, water treatment plants, mining operations, and self-supply domestic wells and pipes are all in danger of depredation as a result of an invasive mussel in state water bodies. They could restrict or clog infrastructure intake flows thus reducing the conveyance water that could result in the shut down of operations for maintenance. Those impacts would be an estimated $47 million per year.

Government revenue would dip, especially for local governments, with an invasive mussel incursion. For instance, state lakefront or waterway frontage properties could decrease in value by an estimated $500 million for an estimated loss of $4 million per year in property tax revenue for state and local governments. Flathead, Whitefish, and Swan lakes water front property amounts to 78 percent of the total lakefront value in Montana. 

Hanson said the property value loss of $500 million was the numbers that revved up his attention. Flathead Lake is the largest of the three water bodies that comprise the 78 percent of lakeshore property. 

“That is a serious loss of value for the Flathead Lake shoreline properties,” Hanson said, adding that he guestimates that the Flathead Lake property value loss would account to at least 40 percent of the $500 million property value loss because its has the longest shoreline with the most development. The $4 million tax revenue loss would be an annual hit to the state and local government coffers; the $500 million property value loss could be one time hits when the property is devalued as a result of the AIS infestation. “Spending a million dollars a year to prevent this serious loss of $200 million in property values along Flathead Lake is well worth the investment.”

Hanson said he hopes the state continues to learn from the experience gained from the anti-AIS effort. He would like to see the increased focus on the slow-moving waters of lakes and reservoirs that are prime habitats for infestation, as well as more strategic check station locations with longer hours of operation. He said the report views all Montana waterways and water bodies the same with the same economic values. However he said the destination areas have the more revenue generation potential, as well as better potential for invasion as the water bodies, ie lakes and reservoirs, provide for better habitat than fast flow moving rivers and creeks.

“There is a greater awareness of state residents of the invasive mussel threat but still not fully aware of its potential negative impacts to the environment and economic,” Hanson said. “The state needs to fine-tune its economic impact predictions. One thing that is not addressed in the study is economic impacts to individuals in the potential impact areas. The costs of mitigation of hydroelectric infrastructure will be passed on to rate-payers, loss of tourism dollars would be lost by businesses, especially the mom and pop businesses providing needed services would have no such safety net.”

The current level of state AIS funding is approximately $6.5 million per annum. That is approximately 3 percent of the estimated $234 million annual mitigation and lost revenue costs related to a quagga and zebra mussel invasion.

According to the report prevention, early detection and rapid response are considered the most cost-efficient weapons in the mussel invasion economic defensive arsenal. Once established, adult invasive mussels can’t be eradicated, that would mean damage mitigation and control are the only feasible responses. And that would cost an estimated $234 million a year. 

According to the report, an estimated two weeks per quarter or eight weeks a year downtime would be needed to hands-on mechanically remove mussels from the Séliš Ksanka QÍispé  Dam infrastructure. The down time would result in a $2 million loss of generation revenue. That is 10 percent of the annual $20 million revenue stream related to sales of 1.1-gigawatt hours with the selling price of $20 per megawatt hour.

The estimated economic drain to the Montana purse is based on an extrapolation of mussel mitigation and damage costs incurred by entities in areas where the invasive mussels have established populations. Basically, that is in all water bodies and drainages except the Columbia River Basin. The Montana worst-case scenario cost-estimates are based on invasive mussels in all state waterways and water bodies. The report does not take into account the indirect costs that the mussel-invaded states have incurred, ie the trickle-down effect of lost revenue to the stakeholders who then have less to spend in area businesses, etc. 

“Eradicating invasive mussels once they establish is difficult, if not impossible,” Thomas Woolf, Fish Wildlife, and Parks Aquatic Invasive Species bureau chief told the Missoula Current. “Prevention is our best bet at keeping them out of our waters and avoiding the costs associated with their impacts. Research continues on methods to prevent and manage mussels, so the longer we can keep them out, the better the chances we’ll see a solution to this problem.”

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