WHITEFISH – City officials raised concerns last week about the spread of aquatic invasive species in Whitefish Lake and other regional water bodies after fragments of a zebra mussel shell were discovered on a commercial cleanup barge arriving from Idaho.
A fleet of about 18 out-of-state commercial vessels is being used to dredge the bottom of Whitefish Lake to remove petroleum-contaminated sediment from a Burlington Northern train car derailment in 1989, when tens of thousands of gallons of diesel fuel spilled into the water. Meanwhile, a separate cleanup on the Whitefish River recently entered its fourth and final phase to remove contaminated sediment from a BNSF fueling facility located near the river.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is overseeing both cleanup operations, which employ commercial barges from Idaho, California, Washington and the Midwest – regions where aquatic invasive species have caused problems.
Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld called on EPA officials to follow more stringent inspection protocols before launching the vessels in order to prevent the introduction of aquatic invasive species to Whitefish Lake, which he said would have potentially devastating ecological and economic effects.
“The city of Whitefish and various developments including Iron Horse rely upon Whitefish Lake as a source of their municipal water supply and for recreation,” Muhlfeld wrote in a letter to Steven Merritt, on-site coordinator for the EPA cleanup on Whitefish Lake and Whitefish River. “In addition, Whitefish Lake is one of the key economic assets to our community, which we believe as city officials must be protected in perpetuity for existing and future generations of Montanans.”
Invasive species like the zebra mussel reproduce and spread rapidly, arriving over land from waters infected elsewhere by hitching rides on anything from a boat hull to fishing gear. They attach to hard surfaces and can foul boat motors, block water intake pipes, clog irrigation systems, disrupt water purification systems and impact fisheries.
The discovery of the zebra mussel shell fragments on one boat, and unidentified but suspicious biological materials from two separate boats, occurred during inspections by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Flathead Basin Commission.
Afterward, the launching of several vessels was delayed while additional decontamination and quarantine protocols were implemented. The city also requested vessel inspection records for all boats being launched on the Whitefish River and Whitefish Lake.
Based on the findings, Muhlfeld asked that additional precautionary measures be followed, to which the EPA has agreed.
“The city understands that additional commercial vessels are en route from Idaho to Whitefish and are planned to be deployed at City Beach. In the spirit of minimizing the risk of aquatic nuisance species introductions, the city on behalf of the multi-jurisdictional stakeholders is requesting the following protocols be implemented prior to launching at our facility,” he wrote.
The barges and all clean-up apparatus are being subjected to both a visual inspection and a level-one inspection by FWP officials. If any suspect biological matter is discovered, a level two inspection will be conducted.
The boats must also be quarantined before deployment “to ensure full desiccation of mussels and other biological materials.”
Muhlfeld said he appreciated the responsiveness of EPA, BNSF and other agencies, but emphasized that the systems and protocols for detection of aquatic invasive species need to advance across Montana.
“We need more stringent and uniform protocols for preventing the spread of aquatic invasive species, and I would hope that during this next legislative session a bill is carried forward to improve our response,” Muhlfeld said. “From the city’s standpoint, I think this has highlighted the need to take local action in order to protect Whitefish Lake as a local asset.”
In a separate but related matter, Muhlfeld recently expressed his concern to FWP about reopening the Beaver Lake boat launch in Whitefish after Eurasian watermilfoil was found there in the fall of 2011. FWP closed the boat launch immediately to prevent the invasive plant from spreading to other local water bodies, and the Flathead County Weed District treated the infested area using bottom barriers to control growth and prevent the spread.
Muhlfeld commended the weed district’s efforts as “valiant,” but said Beaver Lake has not been fully eradicated of Eurasian watermilfoil because plant fragmentation occurred during the treatment.
“The likelihood that some of the EWM survived to reproduce is a virtual certainty,” he wrote in a letter to FWP director Joe Maurier.
“I’m sensitive to keeping our public resources open, however, the consequences associated with the potential spread of this aquatic invasive species to Whitefish Lake and other local water bodies is too great at this time,” according to the letter.
Muhlfeld said boats leaving Beaver Lake could carry the plant to other waters in the region.
FWP has temporarily closed the boat launch while they attempt to eradicate the plant by covering the affected portion of the lake so the plant cannot photosynthesize. If that doesn’t work, the agency is evaluating chemical herbicide applications.
“This really could be catastrophic, not only ecologically but economically,” Muhlfeld said. “In communities where aquatic invasive species have taken hold it has literally become a million-dollar-a-year problem. We can’t afford to have that happen in Whitefish.”
Missoulian Flathead Valley Bureau reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 730-1067 or at email@example.com.