Two invasive mussel species, the quagga and the zebra, could devastate river and lake ecosystems statewide and wreak havoc on the infrastructure residents depend on to provide them with drinking water and irrigation.
A bill recently introduced into the state House of Representatives by Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage aims to make sure the mussels never gain a foothold in New Mexico.
House Bill 536 would create rigorous boat inspections, a practice adopted by neighboring states, but not yet in place here.
"This bill is important because the zebra and quagga mussels are quietly trying to invade the waters of New Mexico," Clahchischilliage said in a phone interview on Friday. "All the states around us regulate (the mussels). We don't."
Although there have been some sightings of the mussels, including in Navajo Lake, the numbers remain low, she said. It is important to implement laws to contain their spread before they become entrenched in waterways and lakes statewide.
"We're talking millions in damage (if we don't act)," Clahchischilliage said.
The bill made a second appearance before the House Judiciary Committee Friday afternoon and may be heard on the House floor sometime next week, she said.
At least one other local representative thinks the bill is a good idea.
Rep. Tom Taylor said he supports the idea behind the bill, and thinks the mussels should be dealt with, but added that HB 536 was introduced late in the legislative process.
"The opportunity to inform people hasn't happened yet," he said. "The chances (of passing) are slim."
Nonetheless, Taylor remains optimistic.
Putting the bill through the legislative process is a good way to get information out to the public, he said.
"We do have an issue with waterways all across the west," Taylor said. "We certainly ought to do all we can to stop the (mussels') advance. I think it needs to be out there. It's a good way to get the word out."
The mussels began their journey into the United States in the late 1980s, hopping across the Atlantic Ocean in ships' ballast and bilge water from the large rivers of Eastern Europe where they are native.
After their introduction, the mussels quickly spread throughout the Great Lakes and Eastern waterways, moved into the Mississippi River basin and hopped over to Lake Mead, Lake Havasu and Lake Mohave.
The mussels' leap into the West worries water conservation workers across the region because of their ability to adapt and rapidly colonize new ecosystems. This expansion could damage river and lake ecosystems statewide because both mussel varieties remove vital phytoplankton and other basic elements of the food chain that sustain native species. That activity can disrupt the ecological balance of entire bodies of water.
In addition, the mussels accumulate pollutants in their tissues, often making them unsafe to eat and exposing wildlife preying on them to those same pollutants.
For Randy Kirkpatrick, executive director of the San Juan Water Commission, the mussels are one of the most significant water-born threats in the region.
"Quagga mussels are now found in Lake Mead, Lake Havasu, the Lower Colorado River and dozens of other waters in Arizona, California, Colorado and Utah," he wrote in a letter to Taylor late last month. "Some tests indicate (the mussels) may already be present in New Mexico in Navajo Lake ... and in Lake Sumner. Fishery disruption in the San Juan River Basin could have a severe economic impact on the local community from a resulting decline in eco-tourism and fishing."
The mussels can also attach to hard surfaces, the letter said. They can clog water intake structures of power plants, water treatment systems and water supply systems, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in maintenance costs nationwide.
Clahchischilliage's bill has the commission's full support, he wrote.
"The most economically viable, and successful, method of preventing invasion involves boat inspection and boater education," Kirkpatrick wrote.
Greg Yee may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 564-4606. Follow him on Twitter @GYeeDT