City prepares to fight AIS threats

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A frozen Whitefish Lake at City Beach. (Daniel McKay/Whitefish Pilot)

The city of Whitefish is considering a more aggressive approach to combat the threat of aquatic invasive species for Whitefish Lake.

The Whitefish Lake Institute is recommending the city adopt an expanded aquatic invasive species plan it has developed in efforts to prevent the spread of zebra mussels to the lake and surrounding waterbodies.

The plan calls for increased watercraft inspection hours and staffing at City Beach along with the potential gating of the boat launch to ensure only inspected boats enter the lake. In addition, the plan calls for adding a city-run watercraft inspection station for Whitefish Lake State Park and creating an off-site decontamination station for boats.

The plan proposes the city spend almost $80,000 for the program for the fiscal year that begins July 1. This is more than double current fiscal year’s management program expenditure of $30,000.

Whitefish Lake Institute Executive Director Mike Koopal said state plans to prevent zebra mussel infestations is a positive step, but Whitefish needs a local plan to offer an additional layer of protection. Both plans won’t be 100 percent effective in eliminating the threat, he noted.

“However, when the state plan is fully implemented, in combination with this proposed local plan, Whitefish Lake would be provided the most thorough level of prevention against zebra mussels for any waterbody in the state,” he said.

City Council March 6 held a work session on the plan. Any decision about funding the full program will be made this summer when the city approves its budget for fiscal year 2018.

While no official votes can take place at a work session, Council did tentatively agree to fund some stop-gap measures for May 1 through June 30. Council asked city staff to form a plan that would allow the city to spend about $16,000 to increase boat inspections before the start of the fiscal year.

“I don’t think we have a choice,” Councilor Frank Sweeney said. “We’ve got to figure it out.”

A zebra mussel infestation has become of particular concern after this fall when Tiber Reservoir, east of Shelby, tested positive for zebra mussels and Canyon Ferry near Helena had suspect results. Samples from the Milk River and the Missouri River have also returned suspect results.

Koopal paints a grim picture for Whitefish Lake if it becomes infested with AIS. In particular, a zebra mussel colonization could have long-reaching economic and environmental consequences.

Zebra mussels could plug the city’s municipal water intake pipe in Mountain Harbor and eventually be pumped into the water treatment plant, clogging infrastructure and “leaving Whitefish residents without drinking water,” he noted. Individual property could be damaged, recreation experience reduced, and the ecology and water quality of Whitefish Lake would suffer.

Also because the lake is at the headwaters of the Columbia River system, all points downstream could expect colonization over time. All of these issues would likely lead to decreased property value and a decrease in the local tax base, and businesses would likely suffer because of decreased recreation, he added.

“It’s an emergent issue,” Koopal said. “Once you get any AIS, the chance to get rid of it is zero.”

In the expanded program proposal, the majority of the money as earmarked for watercraft inspection and decontamination at $64,830. The budget also includes $5,000 for Beaver Lake Eurasian water milfoil monitoring and control; $7,500 for DNA analysis of select lakes; and $2,000 for annual management report preparation.

While the institute is seeking almost $80,000 from the city for the plan, it estimates the cost of implementing a fullscale watercraft inspection and decontamination program, which also includes education efforts, at more than $220,000. The institute has applied for grants and is seeking donations from targeted groups to cover the remaining costs.

For several years now, boats entering the water at City Beach have had to pass an AIS inspection to launch. The proposal looks to extend the inspection window from May 1 to Sept. 30 compared to the current operation of Memorial Day to Labor Day. Staffing hours would also be expanded from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

In addition to the mandatory inspections, the institute is proposing the city install a key-coded gate at City Beach to control access to the water. Watercraft exiting the lake after staffing hours would use a key-code to open the gate. The estimated cost for the gate and installation is $17,000, which is included in the program’s total budget.

Users could have their boat sealed upon exiting the lake to avoid re-inspection upon returning. Those wanting to launch from Sept. 30 to May 1, would be required to pass an online certification to obtain a code to open the gate.

The proposal includes the creation of a new inspection station on State Park Road in cooperation with Whitefish Lake Golf Course. Boats would be required to pass inspection before using Whitefish Lake State Park to launch.

WLI is seeking funds from FWP and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and Resources to assist with construction and staffing coats of the station. The city’s portion of costs is recommended at about $47,000.

Koopal recommends targeting both City Beach and State Park launches with increased efforts because they are the only two main access points to the lake. A total of 2,320 boats were inspected last year at City Beach.

In addition to the increased inspections, the plan also recommends required decontamination for high risk watercraft. High risk includes those watercraft with ballast tanks or bags, those with standing water, from a mussel infested state, those that last launched in an infested waterbody or the craft is too dirty to inspect.

Any boat falling under this category would be directed to leave the inspection stations and would be required to undergo decontamination. The institute is coordinating with Whitefish Marine & Powersports on U.S. Highway 93 to install a decontamination station and provide staffing for the station from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

In order to implement some of the proposed changes, City Council will have to pass an ordinance for the program and would likely need to approve memorandums of understanding with partner agencies involved.

The city in 2013 began funding and implementing an annual AIS management plan as recommended by the institute. The program, with the purpose of preventing AIS from entering local waterbodies, has included early detection and monitoring, watercraft inspections and education and outreach. The plan has shifted based on new information and the ability to leverage other partnerships.

Following the positive test and suspect results for zebra mussels this fall east of the Continental Divide, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has requested an additional $11.5 million from the state Legislature over the next two years to increase its fight against aquatic invasive species. The statewide plan calls for perimeter inspection stations augmented by stations along the Divide.

The Flathead Basin Commission has been involved in a number of efforts to prevent AIS, including operating inspection stations under a memorandum of understanding with FWP.

“We welcome what the state is working on and what Flathead Basin Commission is working on,” Koopal said. “If we layer different plans, hopefully we have a good overall plan.”

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