The update below, from Megan Levy and Felicia Muncaster at the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region, or PNWER, documents the many efforts in both the Northwestern states and in Western Canada to combat the spread of invasive aquatic mussels. — Eds.The Pacific Northwest is rich with water — our lakes are a huge draw for recreation, hydropower provides clean and affordable energy for many of the region’s households and our fertile land blooms with rich agriculture supported by vast irrigation channels. This great resource faces grave threats from aquatic invasive species — particularly quagga and zebra mussels — which leave a lasting impact on water quality, the environment and the economy of every region they infect. Prevention is the key to protecting the waters of the region from these invasive mussels, but it will take coordinated political will across the Northwest, and with our partners in Washington D.C.


Zebra and quagga mussels are small freshwater mussels found in the family Dreissena. Originally native to the lakes of Southern Russia, they were introduced to North America in the 1980s, likely from ships discharging their ballast water in the Great Lakes Region. They have since spread from the Great Lakes into much of the Eastern United States and Canada. Capable of producing more than a million eggs per year, these invasive mussels and their larvae can survive 30 days out of water in cool moist environments. They are easily spread between disjointed bodies of water by contaminated watercraft.Once established in a water system, these mussels attach to all surfaces threatening hydropower and agriculture by clogging piping and planting themselves onto dam facings. As filter feeders, they wreak havoc on local food chains, threatening fisheries by stripping waters of nutrients and increasing water temperature by significantly altering water clarity.The economic impact of these aquatic invaders is significant: The University of California, Riverside, cites the estimated cost of managing mussels at power plants, drinking water systems, industrial structures and on recreational boats and docks in the great lakes at over $500 million annually. The state of Idaho conservatively estimated the annual statewide costs of a quagga or zebra mussel infestation would exceed $94 million, according to the Quagga-Zebra Mussel Action Plan [.pdf] for Western U.S. Waters of February 2010. They have no natural predators in North America, and there is no means for eradicating them. For those water bodies where they have been established, controls are the only option. For the Pacific Northwest, prevention is essential.


The Pacific Northwest, specifically the Columbia River Basin, is the last large, regional drainage basin that remains free of these invasive mussels. Quagga mussels and other aquatic invasive species are most often introduced into an environment by hitchhiking on recreational and commercial watercraft transported from other parts of the United States and Canada that are infested.It is important to maintain strict regulations and inspection in order to prevent quagga and zebra mussels from entering our waterways. According to a report by the Independent Economic Analysis Board, states in the Pacific Northwest region have taken the following actions to target mussel prevention and make it a top priority for their area.

  • In Washington, the 100th Meridian Initiative Columbia River Basin Team was created to prevent the spread of zebra and quagga mussels and has met regularly since 2003. These team meetings are attended by state, federal and tribal natural resource agencies and NGO’s and are chaired by the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission (PSMFC). Additionally, mandatory aquatic invasive species (AIS) check sites have been established and Washington State conducts early detection monitoring for quagga mussels at 229 sites.
  • In Oregon, an Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Program was established in 2009 that requires all boaters have an “Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Permit.” This is a program co-managed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and Oregon State Marine Board. In 2013, Watercraft Inspection Teams were stationed in Ashland, Klamath Falls, Lakeview, Ontario and Brookings where they inspected watercraft for signs of quagga mussel contamination. In 2013, the ODFW added one new inspection station and relocated two stations to better protect Oregon’s borders and make sure the threat of watercraft transporting AIS are intercepted and prevented from entering the state.
  • In Montana, the Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Program was established in 2004, and since then it has been growing steadily. In recent years, there has been a significant boost in funding and support leading to the program receiving $1.6 million in 2013 alone, which will be shared between Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and Fish, Wildlife & Parks. In response to this, Montana spent 2013 beefing up its inspection program by increasing the number of crews and inspection stations in the region.
  • In Idaho, in 2008, the Legislature enacted the Idaho Invasive Species Law, which was intended to address the increasing threat of invasive species to the State of Idaho. A year later, Governor Butch Otter signed legislation to develop and implement a Watercraft Inspection Program. Idaho’s inspection stations are placed on major highways at or near the Idaho state line, to maximize contact with boats coming from impacted states.

Collectively, these four U.S. states inspected more than 83,000 watercraft in 2012, and intercepted 108 that were contaminated. States have benefitted from passionate legislators who have championed this issue. Even with the efforts of Northwest states, inspection and decontamination stations are underfunded, understaffed and further weakened by a lack of formal partnerships.


The waters of the Northwest are at significant risk; a recent report authored by the Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans states that the risk of invasion to Western inland waters is “high” to “very high.” The four Pacific Northwest states are members of the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region (PNWER), a bi-national non-profit that brings the public and private sectors together to find shared solutions to the region’s economic challenges. These states and fellow PNWER member jurisdictions Alaska, Alberta, British Columbia, Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan and Yukon, have begun coordinating to create a perimeter of protection around the region.On May 15, 2013, the Northwest Power & Conservation Council partnered with PNWER, Portland State University and the PSMFC to jointly sponsor a regional workshop in Vancouver, WA entitled “Preventing an Invasion: Building a Regional Defense Against Quagga and Zebra Mussels.” This workshop brought together over 80 individuals representing Canadian and Pacific Northwest irrigation and water districts, water suppliers, legislators, state and federal agencies, tribal sovereign nations, nonprofit organizations, recreational watercraft interests and others to address challenges and barriers and to develop a set of action items that will aid in preventing the introduction of invasive quagga and zebra mussels to the Pacific Northwest.From this workshop, a Northwest Defense Against Mussels Declaration of Cooperation was developed and signed by the workshop sponsors. This Declaration is a statement of good faith and commitment of all parties to:

  1. a) support and participate in a Northwest Defense Against Mussels;
  2. b) strive to identify opportunities and solutions whenever possible;
  3. c) seek efficiencies through regional cooperation and collaboration; and
  4. d) contribute assistance and support within resource limits to prevent the introduction and establishment of invasive mussels in the Pacific Northwest.

Together, the U.S. states are working to improve coordination by identifying the probable pathways for infestation and developing a plan for addressing the inspection and decontamination needs and finding necessary funding measures to prevent contaminated watercraft from launching in the region’s waters. With each of the PNWER jurisdictions pursuing increased funding for boat inspections and greater coordination across jurisdictional boundaries, it has become evident that this fight needs the power of the U.S. and Canadian federal governments behind it.


The greatest hope for preventing the spread of quagga and zebra mussels in the Pacific Northwest is to stop contaminated watercraft from leaving infested waters. In the U.S., the most likely source of contamination is Lake Mead, a federally controlled National Recreation Area. In Canada, the recent discovery of adult zebra mussels in Manitoba’s Lake Winnipeg brings the threat to the region’s borders. It will take action on the part of the respective federal governments to ensure boats leaving the infested waters are decontaminated and that transporting mussels, mussel larvae or watercraft that have not been treated is illegal. These two actions stand to have the largest impact on whether Northwestern waters can remain free of invasive mussels. However, despite earmarked funding and political pressure from the local jurisdictions, these federal needs have not yet been addressed.


Getting the buy-in from politicians to spend money on prevention is a challenge. With so many issues draining state coffers, it can be difficult to coax decision makers into devoting funds to an issue that is not yet a crisis. An infestation in the region would be costly not only to the individual states, but also hydropower producers, irrigators, water districts, fishery managers and other private sector organizations. It will take the political will to set regulations, provide prevention funding and lead the way to protect industry across the Northwest. It is not enough for the states to stand on their own. States must work with their neighbors to build a united front and they must have the support of the federal government if we hope to keep our waters mussel free.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.