Think Out Loud

Quagga mussels will be catastrophic for wildlife and water systems, says invasive species coordinator

By Allison Frost (OPB)
March 14, 2024 1 p.m. Updated: March 14, 2024 8:59 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, March 14

A boat propeller encrusted with invasive quagga mussels that was found in Nevada is displayed during a demonstration of a boat inspection for reporters, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, at a boat launch in Olympia, Wash. The mussels can take food away from juvenile salmon and other fish, and clog water systems.

A boat propeller encrusted with invasive quagga mussels that was found in Nevada is displayed during a demonstration of a boat inspection for reporters, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, at a boat launch in Olympia, Wash. The mussels can take food away from juvenile salmon and other fish, and clog water systems.

Ted S. Warren / AP


You may have heard that various kinds of invasive plants and animals create problems for the species that are native to an area.

In the case of the quagga mussel, which only grows to the size of a thumbnail, its effects extend beyond the natural ecology and into the built environment. Not only can they take food away from juvenile salmon and other fish, the mussels can also clog all sorts of water systems, from municipal water to irrigation and hydropower.

The quagga and the related zebra mussel came from Eastern Europe to the Great Lakes in the 1980s. In the last dozen years or so, quagga has been found in California, Nevada and Utah. They also appeared in Idaho last year along the Snake River.

Rick Boatner, invasive species coordinator at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, says inspections and monitoring could keep the quagga out of Oregon, but probably not for more than a few years. Once they get in, he says quagga mussels will forever change how we use water in Oregon. He joins to tell us more about what’s needed to slow their spread and to highlight a few of the other invasive species on the agency’s radar.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. As we’ve talked about over the years, invasive plants and animals pose serious problems for native species in an area. But in the case of quagga mussels, their effects extend into the built environment. Clusters of these mussels can clog all sorts of systems, from municipal water to irrigation to hydropower. Quagga have been found in California, Nevada and Utah in the last dozen years. Quagga larvae were discovered in the Snake River in Idaho in September. Rick Boatner, the invasive species coordinator at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife says it’s likely only a matter of time before these mussels are found throughout Oregon. He joins us now to talk about this. Welcome back.

Rick Boatner: Hi, Dave. Nice to be back.

Miller: It’s good to have you on again. I want to start with this discovery in the Snake River in September of quagga mussel larvae. What went through your mind when you heard about that?

Boatner: Mass panic, and then very proud that Idaho was doing what they’re attempting to do. The control effort.

Miller: Can you describe that effort? A lot went into it.

Boatner: Oh yeah. And like I said, my hat’s off to Idaho for what they did. Idaho and all the states, we do monitoring for the developer stage of the mussels and Idaho does the same thing. And generally it starts early May, late April, in that time frame, and they do it through the whole season, the spawning season. And Idaho did that, had negatives all the way until late August. And then they found veligers below Twin Falls, in their sampling efforts. At that time, they also found one adult mussel.

So with that, the governor, legislators, everybody got on board and they decided to do a treatment using copper, a product called Matrix. So they started at Twin Falls, they put the product in the water, and we’re talking several tons of this product, and kept it in the water in solution at one part per million for 96 hours.

Miller: What does that chemical kill, in addition to the mussels, in addition to the target? I mean, I guess I’m just wondering how big an action this is?

Boatner: It kills about everything. They had thousands of fish species die in that section of the water, algae, anything that takes up the copper will generally die. So it was pretty, I say, messy in the sense of all the fish that died due to the copper.

Miller: And that’s a mark of how serious local managers…I mean, it’s kind of like dropping a bomb on the area and killing everything so that you can kill the target.

Boatner: Correct.

Miller: Your counterpart in Washington, the Aquatic Invasive Species Policy coordinator there said about the arrival of quagga mussels, “It’s going to impact every portion of our lives. It will change what it means to be a Pacific Northwesterner.” I saw that quote in an article on OPB from a few months ago. It’s a very dramatic quote. Do you agree?

Boatner: 100% with Justin.

Miller: OK, why? What is it about this invasive species in particular, that when it comes here and all of you are saying it’s not a question of if, but when it comes, it will change our lives?

Boatner: Well, the quagga and its cousin, the zebra mussel, which they have back east, both of them are filter feeders. So for the fisheries…which means they’re filter feeders and they’re removing the lowest part of the food web out of the water system, the phytoplankton and stuff like that. So now you will not have the food needed for our salmon fry and steelhead trout species. So that’s eliminated and their population is gonna drop.

They also reproduce quickly and they like to clog pipes. So anything that draws water from a system they’re in, it’s gonna get completely clogged. Now to keep pipes open, they’re gonna basically have to use ram rods to open them up on a regular basis or chemicals or a UV treatment, some type of treatment so they can keep their water pipes open.

Miller: Meaning, so annual maintenance costs - and we can sort of put these in two different buckets. There are the ecosystem effects which you mentioned earlier, in terms of, say, eating the food that native species rely on. And it’s hard to quantify that monetarily; it’s maybe easier to say that if you are running a municipal water system or an irrigation pipe, you need to spend X amount of dollars every year just so those systems will work. What kind of a price tag do you envision?

Boatner: Several. The upper millions to billions of dollars each year if you look at the whole system. So it’s going to be a tremendous economical drain.

Miller: And these are things that have already been happening on the east coast or in the Midwest?

Boatner: Correct. East coast down in Lake Mead, on the Colorado River system, Lake Powell, they’re already doing these things. Hoover Dam, actually on their fire suppression, they actually change out pipes on a regular basis, ‘cause it’s so full of quagga mussels.


Miller: And the idea is once they establish themselves, you can’t get rid of them?

Boatner: Currently, there is no good method…well, I should say a method that doesn’t affect everything else, like the copper will kill all the fishes that are in the area. If it hits the Columbia River, even on the Snake, these threatening endangered salmon and steelhead species, it’s gonna kill them if we treat it with the copper. Some of the other products, they all have side effects. So there’s very limited tools you can use once they get established. Hopefully somebody will discover something in the future. But right now, we’re very limited in what can be done.

Miller: So we started by talking about the really profound actions taken by officials in Idaho after they discovered these veliger stage mussels, which I think is just a fancy word for the larval stage for those mussels. But my understanding is that Oregon officials at boat inspections have found quagga mussels over 100 times over the last decade or so. Eight to 16 boats a year are found to have mussels. So is that different? And does that set off a different level of alarm than actually finding larvae in the water?

Boatner: Yeah, the boat inspections are trying to prevent the mussels from being brought in, especially live mussels. And since we started the program in 2010, we’ve intercepted 168 quagga and zebra mussel boats. So quite a few and all the other states have similar programs. And we’re at the tail end of a lot of this traveling, so they even get more quagga and zebra mussel boats coming in. The concern with that, if they have live mussels, the person backs down, a few mussels drop off, and then we start a new population.

Miller: Whereas, in the Snake River, it wasn’t mussels on a boat that were intercepted, it was actual baby mussels and one adult that were already in the water system.

Boatner: Right. And for that area, it’s difficult to explain how they got there because that’s not a motorized boat area. In fact, it’s below Twin Falls. There’s no access between Twin Falls and Pillar Falls. You only can get through with a kayak or a stand up paddle board. So there’s no motorized access and it’s very steep and rugged terrain. So it was a weird spot to find them in the first place.

Miller: Do you think that the response over the last six months that you’ve seen from the state of Oregon, from Oregon leaders, elected officials or other folks, has been commensurate with the threat that you see?

Boatner: No, I’ve personally been disappointed that it didn’t get much excitement at all. I mean, when I first heard about this, I was in a panic, an excitement type, and not really much out of our legislators or the governor or anybody else about this. And that’s what really surprised me, I was expecting that.

Miller: Well, what do you think the state should be doing that it’s not?

Boatner: Well, for right now we need to invest in more inspection stations, so we’re not getting movement through the watercraft, a trailer to watercraft or stand up paddle boards and those types of vessels. We need more funding to increase monitoring to see how far, I mean, if we hit them early, we have a better chance with less damage to the environment than if we hit them too late. And then start thinking about, would we be willing to do what Idaho did if they say, they got in the lower Snake River before it empties into the Columbia? What measures would we be willing to take?

Miller: That’s an interesting point. So, do you think that when these mussel larvae are found in some portion of Oregon waters, that Oregon officials would do the same thing? The kind of nuclear option of literal tons of that copper to kill everything? Is that already Oregon policy?

Boatner: Well, for a river like the Columbia, I don’t know, maybe 50/50, I tell you right now that we might do it. I think I would be personally surprised if that’s done based on all the salmon and steelhead we have in the system, and sturgeon. If we find it in a lake, like, say Prineville Reservoir, I think the percentages are higher, we would take more of a heavier hand to try to do something because we have more control in those situations. But Oregon does have, we have a response plan for both the Columbia River system and non-Columbia River system waters in Oregon.

Miller: Why do you think these mussels have not yet established themselves in the Columbia River Basin? My understanding is it’s basically the last really big river basin in the country that doesn’t have either zebra or quagga mussels. Is it because of the inspection efforts? Is it just dumb luck or is there an ecological reason for it?

Boatner: Well, I think most of it is the preventative measures we’ve taken. Oregon did, starting in 2009, by establishing the inspection stations which started in 2010. But all the other states are helping protect us because Montana, Idaho Wyoming, Utah, they all have inspection stations. So we’re getting protected by the other states. So I think that’s been a big advantage. Possibly luck. I know most of our water bodies like the Columbia, especially on the east side, mussels would do fine there, the conditions are good for them.

Miller: We’ve been focusing on mussels because it seems like they are your top concern as the invasive species coordinator for the state. But what’s second on your list before we say goodbye?

Boatner: Oh, well, update. I think last time I was on your show, we talked about the crayfish.

Miller: In Southern Oregon.

Boatner: The Malheur Basin.

Miller: Oh, the Malheur Basin.

Boatner: Yeah, the rustic crayfish. That looks like we eliminated them. So if we get another zero this year, I’m very confident that we removed them from that water body. So, a positive note on that one. And then the northern crayfish that we were talking about, they’re continuing to expand in the southwest part of the state, between the Ashland and Medford area. So that will continue.

The other one we have is, it’s coming on to nesting time for turtles, both native and non-native. So we should be seeing more non-native common snapping turtles and the red-eared slider showing up in various spots. And also our western painted, which is native, and our western pond will both be showing up here pretty quick. Which on those, if you see them crossing the road, if they’re a native species, please help them across in the direction they’re going. If they’re the non-natives, we ask that you turn them into ODFW.

Miller: I thought you would say run them over. OK.

Boatner: No, don’t run them over.

Miller: OK. Stop and then take them to ODFW.

Rick Boatner, thanks very much.

Boatner: Alright, thank you.

Miller: Rick Boatner is the invasive species coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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