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Legislators from the Environmental Quality Council

Legislators from the Environmental Quality Council along with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks officials watch a boat get decontaminated at the Silos decontamination station on Canyon Ferry Reservoir during a tour of the aquatic invasive species operation on the waterbody in June 2017.

Boaters, anglers and hydropower producers will all keep paying for Montana’s fight against aquatic invasive species.

Last week, the Legislature passed House Bill 411, sponsored by Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, which is expected to raise between $6.5 and $8 million annually through fiscal year 2023. Those funds will pay for the boat inspection stations, water-quality monitoring and public-awareness campaigns that Montana has deployed to prevent invasive zebra and quagga mussels from entering the Columbia River Basin.

“The funding’s going to allow us to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” said Greg Lemon, a spokesman for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Since 2017, Montana has funded its aquatic-invasive species programs through about $6.5 million worth of fees on anglers, hydroelectric facilities and the utilities that use their power.

Invasive zebra and quagga mussels travel between water bodies by attaching to boats’ hulls and riding in their ballast tanks. When they infest a water body, they can devastate its infrastructure by clogging pipes and intakes. That makes the mussels a major threat to the Columbia Basin’s hydroelectric dams.

The session saw much back-and-forth over who should pay prevention costs: all Montana taxpayers via the general fund, the boaters and anglers whose vessels might carry the invaders, the dams that need to be protected from them, or the utilities that buy their power.

The final funding package leaves out the utilities and general fund, and places the funding burden on dam operators, boaters and anglers. Members of that last group will have to buy an aquatic invasive species pass with their fishing licenses, priced at $7.50 for nonresidents and $2 for residents. Nonresident boaters will also have to buy a pass, at $30 for motorized boats or $10 for nonmotorized boats. The state will also add between $35 and $75 to boat registration fees, funds that will be deposited in an invasive species account.

On the hydroelectricity side, the bill allows a fee on utilities to expire, while changing those applied to hydroelectric facilities. Previously, they had to pay $796 per megawatt of capacity each quarter. Moving forward, those fees will range between $275 to $825 per megawatt, depending on the size of the facility.

The bill also shifts about $500,000 annually in state lodging tax revenues from the Montana Department of Commerce to the state’s invasive species account, and projects between $1.4 million and $2.2 million in federal revenue for each of the next four years.

The bill’s fiscal note projects that these measures will raise $8 million in fiscal year 2020, and almost $6.6 million in each of the next three fiscal years. The state should spend $7.3 million next fiscal year and almost $6.2 million for each of the following years.

This is on par with previous years’ funding, Lemon said. “On the ground, the average Montana watercraft owner really isn’t going to see a lot of difference based on the funding package.” But he did say the agency is trying to use its funds more efficiently by collaborating with partners.

Those partners include the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, which operate inspection stations in Plains and Ravalli under contract with Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Erik Hanson, the tribes’ aquatic invasive species coordinator, predicted the latest funding package will aid their efforts.

“The tribes are looking at developing permanent inspection stations,” he said. “Now that we know we have funding in place, we can go after additional funds to build an inspection station.”

That way, “instead of the inspectors having to do inspections out in the weather, they would be able to do inspections underneath a covered building.”

The payers, meanwhile, continue to differ over the proper funding mix.

“I’m pleased that they’ve secured funding for this important program,” said Jim Vashro, president of Flathead Wildlife, Inc., “and I’m pleased that they spread out the funding base to capture fees [from] other than just boaters and anglers, because all Montanans have a stake in the outcome.

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“The fee on nonresident boats seems to be fair, because that’s the most likely source of invasive mussels,” he added.

Vashro noted that “the early versions exempted hydropower, and I think hydro has a tremendous amount at stake in terms of how it would impact their facilities, and I’m pleased to see they’ll be part of the funding package still.”

Tom Ebzery disagrees. Ebzery is a lobbyist for Spokane-based Avista Corporation, which owns the Noxon Rapids Dam on the Clark Fork River. He predicted the company, not taxpayers, would shoulder the costs of an infestation.

“Should mussels get into the generators or into the turbines, I believe that Avista would be the first one to come clean it up, because it would be affecting our customer base and our ability to operate the dam.”

Ebzery said Avista plans to ask the Legislature’s Environmental Quality Council to revisit the issue during the interim. He predicted that “under this bill...we’re going to go from [paying] $1.5 to $1.65 million annually and we did not feel that was fair.” Whether or not that increase gets passed on to consumers is up to out-of-state regulators. Noxon retails almost all of its electricity in Washington and Idaho, he said.

In Northwest Montana, meanwhile, the Flathead Electric Co-Op does not expect the bill will directly affect its wholesale or retail power rates, its public relations officer, Wendy Ostrom Price, wrote in an email.

She said the Co-Op “generally supported HB 411,” and was “pleased that this bill removes the two-year funding commitment put on hydro purchasers as part of the 2017 Legislature.”

The funding package passed that year had assessed fees on utilities that purchase hydropower, in addition to the dams themselves. Ostrom Price maintained hydropower “is not a cost causer when it comes to infestations.”

She did not specify which funding sources the Co-Op would like to see. She did, however, make clear that “we support AIS prevention efforts, but feel it’s an issue for all Montanans and should be funded as such.”

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Higher education reporter for the Missoulian