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Invasive mussels in Lake Powell put NM waters at risk as boaters travel into the state

NM Department of Game and Fish official: 'They're not very big, but in dense clusters they cause a lot of problems'

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — New Mexico has managed to keep invasive aquatic mussels out — so far. But that means vigilant inspections and decontamination of boats.

Reservoirs in the Four Corners region are considered high-risk because of their proximity to Lake Powell, where these mussels attach themselves to boats that are later brought to places like Navajo Lake.

Preventing them from entering New Mexico will save millions of dollars in the long run, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish Aquatic Invasive Species Coordinator James Dominguez told the San Juan Water Commission during a meeting on March 4.

Once the mussels have established populations in a body of water, the damage can be severe and wide-reaching. Dominguez said it can impact everything from outdoor recreation to domestic water supplies.

“They’re not very big, but in dense clusters they cause a lot of problems,” he said.

No 'silver bullet' to get rid of mussels

Invasive mussels are seen on license plates that were left in infected waters in Lake Mojave in Arizona for different lengths of time. New Mexico Department of Game and Fish Aquatic Invasive Species Coordinator James Dominguez brought the license plates to the San Juan Water Commission meeting on Wednesday, March 4, 2020, in Farmington.

Fishing line can get tangled on the mussels and end up cut, causing anglers to lose lures. People walking on shores can have their feet cut by the mussels. And they can block pipes needed to transport water to homes and businesses.

“It’s pretty expensive to manage around these and, to date, we don’t have a silver bullet to get rid of them,” Dominguez said.

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The zebra and quagga mussels trace their origins to the Black and Caspian seas and were brought to the United States by boats. The mussels first became established in the Great Lakes region and have spread from there. They reached Lake Mead in 2007, which was the first western United States location where the mussels were found.

Now New Mexico and Colorado are among the few states without zebra or quagga mussels.

“I think probably we have been lucky,” Dominguez said.

But New Mexico’s luck may not hold out forever. Many neighboring states have lakes infested with zebra and quagga mussels. He said Texas discovers four or five more water bodies infested with the mussels each year.

Inspecting and decontaminating boats

A watercraft inspection station at Lake Farmington

Boats that have been used at a lake with mussels can bring them into New Mexico without even knowing it. The immature mussels are microscopic, and the adults are the size of a person’s pinky fingernail.

New Mexico inspected more than 42,000 boats in 2019. Dominguez said 13 boats that were inspected had mussels on them last year. He said the boat owners were surprised when the tiny mussels were discovered on their crafts.

There are currently inspection stations at both Lake Farmington and Navajo Lake and Dominguez said he would like to see an inspection station at Morgan Lake as well.

He said the inspection station at the Pine Ramp at Navajo Lake checks between 150 and 250 boats each day and, of the 209 boats decontaminated statewide in 2019, 148 of them were decontaminated at Navajo Lake.

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The decontamination process involves spraying the boat with hot water. Dominguez said decontamination does not mean mussels have been found on the boat. Instead, it means the inspectors believe it poses a higher risk. For example, a boat that has been at Lake Powell and has water in it could introduce microscopic mussels into Navajo Lake.

Dominguez said 88 of the boats decontaminated at Navajo Lake in 2019 had come to San Juan County from Lake Powell.

'They just reproduce and reproduce'

Boats entering the waters of Navajo Lake are carefully inspected for invasive aquatic species and, when necessary, they are decontaminated.

If the mussels did reach Lake Farmington, Navajo Lake or Morgan Lake, Dominguez said everything in the reservoirs would likely be covered in a thick coat of mussels within five years.

"They don't have any natural predators, they don't have any mechanisms to kind of shut each other off so they don't overproduce," he said. "They just reproduce and reproduce to the point where they'll just stack on each other and die off."

The dead mussels can then lead to foul-smelling water.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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