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Quagga mussels pose a major threat to Idaho water

TWIN FALLS – Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, the state’s largest general farm organization, is supporting the Idaho State Department of Agriculture’s all-out effort to stop quagga mussels from gaining a foothold in Idaho waterways.

The ISDA on Sept. 18 confirmed the presence of quagga mussel larvae in the Snake River near Twin Falls.

As a result, a small stretch of the river has been closed off while ISDA teams conduct surveys to determine the scope of the impacted area.

The mussels are an invasive species and the ag department immediately unleashed a rapid response team to deal with the issue and explore potential control strategies.

“We’re going to throw at this everything we possibly can; every resource,” ISDA Director Chanel Tewalt told Idaho Farm Bureau Federation two days after the mussels were detected. “We have solicited every ounce of help we can get from every other agency, federal, state and local.”

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation President Bryan Searle, a farmer from Shelley, said Farm Bureau applauds the ag department’s aggressive approach to this issue and stands ready to assist ISDA in getting the word out about the issue and encouraging all Idahoans to do their part in helping eradicate the mussels.

IFBF represents about 11,000 people directly involved in Idaho’s agricultural industry.

“This is a really serious issue,” Searle said. “We’re talking about a species that has the potential to really wreak havoc on the state’s water infrastructure.”

The quagga mussel larvae were detected in the Centennial Waterfront Park area of the Snake River and ISDA has closed off public access to the river between Niagara Springs and Twin Falls.

Quagga mussels are not a threat to human health but they could potentially cause a lot of damage to the state’s waterways and water infrastructure.

The freshwater mussels, which are native to Eastern Europe, can rapidly colonize hard surfaces. They can clog water-intake structures such as pipes and screens and can accumulate in great numbers on docks, buoys, boat hulls and beaches.

“These invasive pests will clog pipes that deliver water for drinking, energy, agriculture and recreation,” Gov. Brad Little said during a press conference Sept. 19. “This is a very high priority for Idaho and for me, given the gravity of the risk.”

If the mussels take hold in Idaho, they could cause great harm to the state’s agriculture industry.

“I can’t imagine how much this would complicate the work of our agricultural producers in terms of cost, in terms of irrigation availability and in terms of costs to irrigation districts of trying to manage them and cleaning pipes,” Tewalt said. “Just the physical part of getting mussels out of infrastructure is incredibly difficult.”

An estimated $500 million a year is spent managing them in the Great Lakes.

“What’s different in the West, though, is that you take whatever you have in the Great Lakes and complicate it by the fact that we also use our water for power generation and irrigation,” Tewalt said. “So, you can imagine how that cost can potentially multiply in the West and how important of an issue this is.”

Idaho ranks second in the nation, behind California, in the total amount of water withdrawn for irrigation. Most of that water is used for agriculture, which is still the biggest part of the state’s economy.

“This could have a severe impact on Idaho,” Tewalt said. “We heard with a clear voice how quickly we need to react and that’s what we’re doing.”

Fortunately, the mussels found in the Snake River near Twin Falls are the larval form of the mussels. They are basically a free-floating baby in the water right now.

The problem is that as they grow, they want to attach to something and when they start doing that, they can colonize an area to the point they take over pipes and entire ecosystems.

“They are really, really efficient at creating monocultures, choking out other plant and animal life,” Tewalt said. “So, in addition to restricting water flows, they can also choke out the plant and animal life that we care about.”

She said the state still has a fighting chance to eradicate the mussels but it will take an all-out assault from the state, its partners and the general public.

“We have a chance to get rid of them but this is certainly a potential crisis,” Tewalt said. “We have a very narrow window to try to mitigate this issue. We are going to move as quickly as possible to do a treatment, if we have to.”

She said the department and other state officials are having hard conversations right now on what it will take to eliminate the mussels from the river. That could mean some type of chemical treatment on the impacted stretch of the river that could potentially harm some other species temporarily.

But, she added, the risk of doing nothing and allowing the mussels to take hold in Idaho is too severe.

“We want to protect as many species as we can and have a treatment that is as direct and effective and timely as we can make it to protect the river as a whole,” Tewalt said.

“A small ounce of prevention in this case is worth that pound of cure,” Tewalt said. “The good outweighs the bad, potentially.”

The department and its state, federal and local partners will do all they can to try to mitigate the problem, Tewalt said. But any successful effort will also require the widespread participation of the public.

“If you are in the invasive species world, you know about the issue,” she said. “But we also need the general public to understand.”

The ag department is asking all Idahoans to “clean, drain and dry” all watercraft and equipment before putting them back in the water. That includes kayaks, canoes, paddleboard, boats and other possible conveyances such as duck decoys, waders and fishing tackle.

If a watercraft has been on the Snake River in the Centennial Park area of Twin Falls in the past 30 days, the Idaho State Department of Agriculture is asking people to take it to an ISDA hot wash station in Twin Falls for proper treatment.

The department is asking these people not to attempt to decontaminate the watercraft themselves. You can call (208) 332-8620 for location information or visit for more information.

Tewalt said it’s important for people to stay completely out of the water in the impacted area.

“The general public needs to know it’s not just boats,” she said. “It’s paddleboards, it’s kayaks, it’s literally anything that would go into the water, including your pets and shoes. All of those things are conveyances and we need people to realize that’s what we mean by staying off the water.”

“We need everyone to help with our really acute efforts in this impact zone,” Tewalt added. “But it is also a broader message to all Idahoans to have an increased level of vigilance about this in every part of the state.”

The ISDA has had a program in place for many years to try to prevent quagga mussels from appearing in Idaho waterways and state legislators have approved millions of dollars toward the program.

The regular water sampling that resulted in the mussel larvae being detected Sept. 18 was part of the state’s quagga mussel program.

“It’s because of (the legislature’s) investment over these many years that we have the resources and personnel today to move so quickly,” Tewalt said. “Those water samples are what allowed for the early detection of this situation.”

If the mussels end up spreading unchecked in Idaho, it could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in actual and indirect costs, said Braden Jensen, director of governmental affairs for IFBF.

“If they become established here, they will have an extreme cost to deal with,” he said. “I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to do our part to be really conscientious of what we’re putting into the water, and where our watercraft and other possible conveyances have been before. I would really encourage people to take heed to the state’s campaign: clean, drain and dry these things that go into the river, every single time.”

About the author

Sean Ellis