The United States has been invaded, not by a foreign army or extraterrestrials, but by two species of freshwater mollusks commonly called quagga and the lesser-known zebra mussels.
Invasive species are of great concern to fishery biologists and to local officials, the Plumas County Sheriff’s Office and to PG&E, owners of Lake Almanor, as well as Bucks Lake near Quincy and nearby Butt Lake near Humbug Valley.
State and federal agencies have joined forces to avert further infestations of quagga mussels and are urging boaters to help stop the spread of the non-native mollusks in California.
According to information from the California Department of Fish & Wildlife website, “A multi-agency taskforce, including the California Departments of Fish and Wildlife, Boating and Waterways, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, National Park Services, and many local governments and water agencies, have launched a statewide outreach campaign to alert the public — and particularly boat owners — about the mussel threat.”
These agencies, along with local authorities and other stakeholders, seek to coordinate efforts to prevent and control harmful invasive species infestations throughout the state with oversight by the California Invasive Species Council, whose mission is to assist in minimizing the negative effects of non-native species on the state’s agriculture lands, natural resources and waterways in rural and urban environments.
Environmental and economic threats
Invasive quagga and zebra mussels are non-native aquatic mollusks that wreak havoc on the environment “by disrupting the natural food chain,” and in large numbers can cause a shift in native species and a disruption of the ecological balance of entire bodies of water, warns CDFW.
If left unchecked, the mollusks potentially pose a dramatic economic threat to California.
History of quagga mussel infiltration
Native to the Caspian Sea and other lakes of southeast Russia, the mussels were first discovered in the U.S. in Lake Saint Clair, east of Detroit, Michigan, in 1988, according to information gathered online.
These exotic freshwater bivalve mollusks, relatives of clams and oysters, are believed to have been introduced through ballast water discharged from ocean-going ships, and have made their way across the country, hitchhiking on the hulls and motor sections of recreational boats.
Since their initial discovery, quagga mussels have spread rapidly throughout the Great Lakes and a number of other watersheds and streams in the eastern and central United States, and are now spreading into waters in the western U.S. as well, particular in Southern California.
As quagga mussel larva mature, they are often drawn into boat engines, cover steering components and clog recreational equipment. They form encrustations on docks, ramps and other marina facilities. They also clog cooling systems and damage boat motors and litter beaches with sharp, foul smelling shells.
The mollusks impact fisheries; recreational activities, including sport fishing; threaten water delivery systems; and interfere in the function of hydroelectric facilities, where the mussels clog intake valves by the thousands.
About a half-inch in size, the quagga mussel is a much more prolific species than the zebra and live from the water’s surface to a depth of up to 200 feet. It can survive as long as three to five days out of water depending upon temperature and humidity during the summer months and up to 30 days in the winter.
Plumas County Fish & Game Commission
The Plumas County Fish & Game Commission, a citizen advisory committee appointed by the Plumas County Board of Supervisors, has been working to educate the public on the prevention of quagga mussels from marching into Plumas County.
Each supervisor appointed two individuals from each district to the Commission. The commission members appointed by supervisor Sherrie Thrall for Lake Almanor in District 3 are Jim Pleau and Eric Rudgers. Rudgers is also vice president of the Almanor Fishing Association.
A primary task of the commission, which meets once a month in Quincy, is to periodically obtain information from PG&E (and other stakeholders) regarding ongoing preventative measures to keep mussels from finding their way into the lake and surrounding watershed, while keeping the Board of Supervisors updated.
Rudgers said he has been an outdoorsman and fishing guide for many years and is therefore committed to helping protect the waterways in our area. As part of the commission’s mission to help preserve the pristine conditions of the lakes and streams for future generations, he has been active in volunteering his time to get the word out.
In his role as a fish and game commissioner, Rudgers expressed how important it is for owners to check for mussels when they transport their boats from infected areas, primarily when coming into Lake Almanor, which sees several thousand boats enter its waters throughout the year, particularly during the summer tourist season.
Plumas County Sheriff’s Office outreach efforts
Reserve Deputy Bob Orange is also a member of the Plumas County Fish & Game Commission, District 2, and works boat patrol on Lake Almanor as part of his responsibilities with the Plumas County Sheriff’s Office.
Protecting the county’s native fisheries is of paramount importance, Orange stressed. “Ignoring the threat of infiltration could be a very, very expensive mistake,” he said, adding that the mussels have few or no natural enemies, and once they get into a lake or stream, “they just take over.”
He noted that Sheriff Greg Hagwood and the Plumas County Sheriff’s Office are extremely concerned about any potential risk of quagga mussels being introduced into the county’s waterways.
Together with PG&E, he said, “The sheriff’s office is taking an active role in education and prevention efforts.”
Eradicating the mussels is costly and nearly impossible, Orange continued. “Once they enter a habitat, it’s often too late to do anything about them.”
He said the idea is to make sure people understand the necessity of cleaning their boats thoroughly between lakes, just in case the mollusks have attached themselves to the hull or other components, waiting for an opportunity to be introduced elsewhere.
Mussel infestation expanding statewide
So far, quagga mussels have contaminated at least 39 waterways and lakes in Southern California, according to state officials; places like Lake Havasu, Lake Piru, Pyramid Lake, the Colorado River Aqueduct and Colorado River at Imperial Dam, including numerous California reservoirs such as San Diego County’s San Vicente Reservoir, for example, all currently heavily infested.
Paul Moreno, PG&E corporate relations officer, said PG&E is working to prevent infiltration as part of the company’s Pacific Gas and Electric Company Quagga and Zebra Mussel Infestation Prevention Program. The program is self-funded throughout their service area at approximately $110,000, and includes an educational component.
He said that PG&E has provided training to its hydro operations and maintenance staff on preventative measures for the spread of quagga and zebra mussels.
In addition, PG&E has information online about these invasive species and measures to prevent their spread. Marine craft owners should take the opportunity to review the company’s webpage for important tips on inspecting and removing these unwanted mollusks from their boats.
A number of important steps are being taken by the company in its plan to prevent mussels from entering Lake Almanor.
“Based on its high recreation value,” Moreno said that, “PG&E monitors the waters of Lake Almanor during the summer months (May-October) when the mussels, if present, would be most active.”
So far, there are no signs of the mollusks in the waters of Lake Almanor, he noted, but the monitoring program continues, employing methods provided by CDFW.
In a communiqué, Moreno explained that monitoring methods include surface surveys, veliger monitoring and artificial substrate monitoring.
“Surface monitoring involves scanning and feeling smooth surfaces, and checking for gritty feeling or small ‘pebble-like’ objects.” These areas include dock flotation, buoys, mooring line, cables, rocks, concrete, logs and drift wood, vegetation and anything that has been in the water for a long time.
Veliger monitoring samples small organisms such as plankton or the larva of most bivalve mollusks, collected by pulling a fine-mesh net through the water column. The collected sample is then sent to the CDFW laboratory in Bodega Bay and analyzed for the presence of non-native species.
Artificial substrate monitoring uses plates that are deployed at locations in the lake and inspected during each visit for any mussels that may have attached themselves.
Moreno said PG&E currently has no routine plans to inspect vessels at boat ramps around Lake Almanor, but said other agencies do so from time to time.
By law, recreational boat owners who boat in any bodies of fresh water in California are assessed a $16 fee biannually along with their boat registration, and must display the “Mussel Fee Paid” sticker next to the registration sticker on their boats.
The mussel fee is used for quagga and zebra mussel infestation prevention grants, including educational outreach, vulnerability assessments and monitoring programs.
The mussel fees collected by the DMV registrations do not entitle boaters to bypass inspections or fees for inspections conducted by individual reservoir owners or managers.
Current outreach efforts
At reservoirs with high recreation traffic, the sheriff’s office, through the Plumas County Sheriff Boating Unit, in partnership with PG&E, is presently engaged in spearheading an active outreach effort.
Currently, they are placing educational posters provided by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, with specific prevention information near waterways at local commercial marinas, campgrounds, boat ramps, homeowner associations and other locations where people will view them.
Orange said he believed there is a need to manage recreational boating activities through voluntary inspection programs and decontamination stations wherever applicable, funded by a portion of state mussel registration fees collected from recreational boat owners.
The infestation of quagga and zebra mussels nationwide has already had an economic impact on states costing in the billions of dollars, researchers estimated.
Because they reproduce quickly and in large numbers, once established, eradication is extremely difficult.
Their establishment in Lake Almanor and other nearby waterways poses a serious threat to local fisheries, and could result in an environmental and economic disaster for the region.
A cautionary tale
In California, it is illegal to transport or possess live or dead quagga or zebra mussels, including water that may contain their microscopic larvae.
According to information provided by David Hollister, district attorney for the Plumas County District Attorney’s Office, and boating deputy Bob Orange, a boat owner last year left the infested waters of Lake Powell, a reservoir on the Colorado River, and drove to the border of California where he was stopped after inspectors discovered his boat was encrusted with quagga mussels.
Despite a requirement to pressure wash his boat with hot water to remove most of the mussels that were visible, he was nevertheless tagged, prohibiting entry into California.
The owner decided to make a runaround via Truckee, intending to arrive at Lake Almanor where he planned to launch his boat undetected near Big Cove Resort.
Although he had removed his tags, concerned citizens who had observed the mussels remaining on his boat while the owner was getting gas, alerted California authorities after he mentioned to them that he was heading to Lake Almanor.
Fish & Wildlife then called the sheriff’s office and a PCSO patrol boat responded with a warden, who subsequently quarantined the boat.
He was later formally charged with two misdemeanors: Possessing, Importing or Transporting Quagga Mussels; and Unlawful Importation of Fish or Wildlife.
Fortunately, PG&E tested the waters soon afterward but found that the lake had not been contaminated. Apparently, the quagga had already died off before the boat entered the water.
It should be noted that boat owners found guilty of these charges could expect to pay thousands of dollars in fines and legal fees. The state can also file a forfeiture action and have the vessel seized indefinitely. In addition, owners found in violation could serve up to one year in county jail, said Hollister.
The perpetrator is currently in warrant status after failing to appear in court, which could later compound penalties when he is finally arrested should he return to California, and may also suffer an increase in potential jail time.
Recreational boaters are encouraged to prevent the further spread of aquatic invasive species by following certain cleaning guidelines — clean, drain and dry.
California State Parks Division of Boating and Waterways actively promotes QZ prevention projects through the Quagga and Zebra Mussel Infestation Prevention Grant Program.
Waterbody managers are encouraged to apply for prevention grants through the DBW.
Approximately $8.8 million in QZ Grant money has been awarded since 2014 to agencies that qualify for the grant, said Adeline Yee, Information Officer, California State Parks, with funds available yearly for grantees to draw from the QZ Grant Program.
Planning and assessment grant projects top out at $200,000 and up to $400,000 for approved implementation projects.
Grants are only available to owners/managers of California reservoirs open to the public for recreational, boating and/or fishing activities where the mussels have not already been found in the reservoir.
Notice for the next grant cycle is likely to kick off in December 2017.
Taylorsville-based Sierra Institute for Community and Environment, for example, has expressed interest in augmenting PG&E’s mussel prevention program, but like any other agency would first have to request permission from the company before they could administer their own outreach efforts.
PG&E has stated it is not in need of such assistance, according to Courtney Gomola, Lake Almanor Watershed Group coordinator at Sierra Institute, given that the company has indicated it is satisfied for now with the effectiveness of its own program.
PG&E’s website outlining the prevention and spread of Quagga and Zebra Mussels. Includes steps to stop highly invasive species: pge.com/…/quagga-and-zebra-mussel-prevention…/quagga-and- zebra-mussel-prevention-program.
Information on boat cleaning procedures to eliminate mussels: dbw.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=28993.
California Natural Resources: resources.ca.gov/quagga.
California State Parks, Division of Boating and Waterways; grant application information.
California State Parks, Division of Boating and Waterways
Quagga and Zebra Mussel Infestation Prevention Program.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife: wildlife.ca.gov/mussels.