Zebra mussel infestation can cost Okanagan Lake millions

RDOS Director Stu Wells said the public needs to be educated on the zebra mussels and the damage they can cause.

By Shannon Quesnel

Okanagan Lake might be facing disaster if zebra and quagga mussels infect it.

Water consultant Heather Larratt brought her message of doom to the Thursday board meeting of the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen. She said these species can do millions in damage to Okanagan Lake and Skaha Lake.

These invasive critters, no bigger than a thumbnail, have wreaked havoc in Canadian and U.S. lakes. They produce billions of offspring, eat nutrients necessary for a healthy food-chain, damage hydro-electric dams, clog water intake pipes and can be transported from lake-to-lake in small fishing boats.

Once native to Russia, zebra and quagga mussels have made their way across Europe and the Atlantic Ocean from hitching rides on sailing ships and later on massive transport vessels.

Larratt said more than $5 billion has been spent over 10 years to manage the pests in the Great Lakes and they are still there.

“In two years after they been introduced (to a lake) you can have a trillion.”

Larratt said no one thought zebras and quaggas would get this far west but they've already been found in Manitoba rivers. She said it is just a matter of time until they reach B.C. They can camp out in boats, waders, boat trailers, canoes and kayaks – anything that goes into the water, and is not properly dried, can transport the animals.

“These guys are pretty good at taking a hitchhike,” she said.

She said many B.C. rivers and lakes are at high-risk for infestation. She added some U.S. states come down hard on boaters who break invasive species rules. Boats that don't have stickers, proving the vessels are clean, don't launch. In Canada, boaters can face fines of up to $100,000 for transporting live or dead mussels.

Larratt and RDOS director Stu Wells said more needs to be done. People need to be educated.

Wells said the impact in eastern Canada is “beyond belief.”

“It's really not good news,” he said.

He said he is hopeful the region can protect its fresh water bodies but he said Larratt is not optimistic.

She said the mussels could cost the Okanagan region about $43 million in lost revenue. For every year the mussels are kept out of Okanagan Lake that is how much money will be saved. The mussels can also do about $4 million in damage to Okanagan Lake docks and boats.

Larratt said Kelowna's floating bridge is in trouble if these mussels show up. They can cling to concrete and pick it apart.

“The hydro dam (people) are shaking in their boots,” she said.

To date only boats washed in extremely hot water and intake pipes protected by chlorine can keep the mussels from spreading. There are currently 900 licensed drinking water intakes in Okanagan Lake.

Director Tom Siddon said, “We are kidding ourselves. We need the co-operation of the federal government.”

The RDOS board will be asking the federal government for assistance.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Shannon Quesnel at squesnel@infotelnews.ca or call 250-488-3065.

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