Swan Lake AIS Sign

A sign at Swan Lake warns boaters about the threat of aquatic invasive species.

TOM KUGLIN, Independent Record

HELENA – Montana is gearing up for its first full boating season after the detection here of some of the most problematic invasive species in North America, zebra and quagga mussels.

State agencies are seeking $11 million over the next two years to double the number of watercraft inspection stations, check all out-of-state boats and implement mandatory decontamination at the Tiber and Canyon Ferry reservoirs, two of the state’s most popular. Mussel larvae were detected at Tiber last year and suspected larvae were discovered at Canyon Ferry Reservoir.

Lawmakers have responded with multiple bills to fund and shape the state’s fight against the invaders.

Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, proposed legislation Friday, Senate Bill 363, that would impose fees on boaters, irrigators and hydropower to finance aquatic invasive species (AIS) programs.

“We’re casting a broad net and that was done purposefully,” Vincent said in an interview. “We’ve expanded that net because everyone needs to be at the table to deal with this urgent situation.”

Infestations of quagga and zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, Midwest and Colorado River basin resulted in significant economic and environmental consequences. Once established, mussels clog hydropower, irrigation and water treatment infrastructure. They also filter plankton which sends ripples through the ecosystem impacting fish and other aquatic life.

There is no known means of eradicating mussels once established. The best current measures, experts say, are to prevent their spread through inspection and education.

SB363 as passed by the Senate Natural Resources Committee proposes an annual $50 nonresident invasive species decal and a $25 decal for resident watercraft. Owners of irrigated farmland would also pay a $25 fee annually and fees on hydropower facilities would also be charged.

In committee action Friday, amendments passed to include major utilities and electric cooperatives, although there was some debate about how those charges affect customers and the role the Public Service Commission will play.

An amendment to alter the funding sources by stripping the irrigation and resident fees and adding $10 to nonresident fishing licenses was voted down. Vincent argued that double or triple dipping – such as repeatedly charging an irrigator who owns boats and pays for power – is unfair. Simply charging residents for power provides a more equitable system for residents, he said.

“The individuals who should bear the lion's share should be the individuals who brought it to us. In this case, it’s out of staters,” Vincent told the committee.

Although unverified, the prevailing theory of how mussels came to Montana is either as adults attached to a boat or larvae contained in ballast or live well water.

SB363 drew public support from several conservation groups and state agencies. Opposition from utilities, electric cooperatives and agriculture groups centered not on the need to fund the AIS program, but on developing a fair and equitable fee system.

With a transmittal deadline looming next week, Vincent reluctantly pressed the committee to take action with anticipation that further amendments will come in the House.

“This bill is far from perfect, it is far from finished,” Vincent told the committee. “We have a lot of technical discussions yet to have about how to make this fair and equitable. We have several amendments to consider.

"I did not hear anyone say, though, this is not an issue we shouldn’t be trying to figure out how to address.”

Both Vincent and fellow Republican, Rep. Mike Cuffe of Libby, say their experience working with the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region nonprofit prompted their initial interest in invasive species.

The Columbia River basin is the last major basin in the lower 48 without invasive mussels, and the organization has estimated a $500 million annual regional impact if the mollusks take hold.

That makes the Continental Divide a dividing line and makes avoiding transport of mussels to the West a major emphasis of Montana’s AIS program.

“There is a firm belief that when spring comes we’re going to find definite signs of mussels at least in Tiber, and we have some hopes they’ve not taken a foothold in Canyon Ferry,” Cuffe said. “Montana managed to avoid them until last summer, but this is a game changer.”

Cuffe was involved in setting up and funding the pre-mussel detection AIS program, which ran inspection stations and education campaigns such as “Clean, Drain, Dry” for boat decontamination.

“We set up the best program we could at the time and we’ve learned a lot since then,” Cuffe said. “This potential infestation really opened the eyes of everyone.”

Cuffe’s House Bill 622 came before the House Natural Resources on Friday. The legislation codifies an invasive species council to advise the governor and creates an Upper Columbia conservation commission to monitor and report on invasive species in that basin. 

“I believe the program that Montana is developing right now will be the model program for other states,” Cuffe said.

Both Cuffe and Vincent complimented the state’s response to the larvae discovery. A coalition of agencies led by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation convened a rapid response team under a governor-declared emergency.

“What this task force did in a couple of months has been really impressive to me,” Vincent said. “Their focus and sincerity to stand up this program to contain and further prevent mussels as efficiently as they did, I believe, will be modeled and replicated across the region.”

Both lawmakers were also candid about the expense of the programs and the challenge of pushing the legislation in a lean budget year. An estimated 300 FWP employees are expected to have a role in the programs, including the hiring of seasonal employees to run decontamination and inspection stations.

“This is a major job, but if we’re serious about containing, controlling and preventing mussels we needed to step up our game seriously,” Cuffe said. “Montana has so many entrances, so many miles of roads, so many water bodies, it takes a lot of dollars to cover that ground.”

A potential long-term funding source could also come through an aquatic invasive species trust fund created in 2015. The current legislation does not tackle sweeping any extra revenue into the trust, but if a funding mechanism can be secured, Vincent and others suggest that the interest on the trust could make the program self-sustaining and the proposed fees could sunset.

While the bulk of funding comes through SB363, other legislation did come forward to provide some AIS funding or shape the programs, including proposals to increase Montana bed taxes, soft drink taxes and boat launch fees. But all died in committee last week.

One major question surrounding invasive species efforts is what role federal funding will play. The state is pursuing dollars through the Water Resources Development Act and the Water Infrastructure Improvements Act. Officials are cautiously optimistic about that funding coming through as Montana is the headwaters for many other downstream states.

“With the administration and some of the federal funding freezes, it’s hard to rely on that and know what the feds are going to do,” said Mike Volesky, chief of operations for FWP. “We can’t gamble on the federal funding so we’re only asking for what we need and (will) be prepared to fund this through the state.”

State agency spending is a two-fold process. A funding source must be secured, but the Legislature also grants authority to spend that funding.

HB2 and HB3 are the authority bills with the former spending over the next biennium and the latter authorizing the funding to date. HB3 has already gone to the governor while HB2 passed the House and is currently being debated in the Senate.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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