The threat of invasive mussels draws ever closer to Alberta

Water officials on high alert after positive samples for larval mussels 
were found in two nearby Montana reservoirs last year

Lakes closed to watercraft; shores fouled with sharp shells and a rotting mollusk smell; millions of tax dollars going to clean up irrigation and hydro-electric infrastructure — that’s the future if quagga or zebra mussels find their way into the province.

For decades, Alberta has been protected by a buffer of mussel-free provinces and states — but that defensive line was breached in October when state officials found larval mussels, known as veligers, in the Tiber and Canyon Ferry reservoirs in Montana.

“Tiber Reservoir is considered positive for mussels because there were five different samples for mussels that came back positive and they came from all different areas of the reservoir,” said Kate Wilson, an aquatic invasive species specialist with Alberta Environment and Parks.

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“In Canyon Ferry, they are considering it suspect because they received only two positives back, and there was a chance that they could be false positives.”

While both reservoirs are close, Tiber Reservoir is only 60 kilometres from the Alberta border. But irrigation officials say the risk was already significant.

“Though they are closer, that doesn’t mean that we are all that more at risk,” said Ron McMullin, executive director of Alberta Irrigation Projects Association. “We are still within a day’s drive of Lake Winnipeg or some of the reservoirs in Utah that have them. Whether it’s a two-hour drive or a 12-hour drive, it’s still within a day’s drive.”

The province’s response to the threat is focused on three main areas: Helping Montana keep the mussels out, increased inspection station presence, and increased monitoring.

Cindy Sawchuk, the provincial K9 Conservation Lead recently took her dog — which is trained to sniff boats for the presence of mussels — down to Montana to help do a shoreline survey. There have been no adult mussels found at either of the at-risk reservoirs, so using dogs to confirm water sample detection could be a very useful tool if a positive shows up in another jurisdiction.

“Right now, she’s in Lake Powell (a reservoir on the Colorado River) working on training the dogs to do exactly that,” Wilson said in an interview earlier this month. “That’s a new thing for the dogs to be looking along the lakeshore.”

There will be additional watercraft inspection stations this season, and they will operate with increased hours. Watercraft inspections are for all boats, motorized and not, and the station at Coutts (on Highway 4 at the Montana border) is operating 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Dunmore and Vermilion (on the Trans-Canada and Yellowhead highways respectively) will operate on extended hours as well. As well, two new stations have been proposed for the southern border.

There have also been measures to improve screening.

The Canadian Border Services Agency has agreed to have every boat that crosses the border fill out a form that obtains the same information collected at inspection stations.

“They send us the form and we’ll be able to follow up with anyone who has a high-risk boat or who for any reason we need to get in touch with,” Wilson said. “We’ll have all the info we need to do that.”

Additionally, there will be increased monitoring of the waterbodies in Alberta.

“We obviously need to do more monitoring, particularly in the south,” Wilson said. “Partly because of the proximity, but also because those irrigation reservoirs are very vulnerable.”

The provincial government monitors using two methods: A substrate check, using items such as a PVC pipe placed in the water and regularly checked for adult mussels, and water-quality monitoring that includes checking for veligers. A local lab processes water samples, which has greatly decreased the turnaround time from sample collection to results.

“We used to send to Ontario and now we do this right in Edmonton with a private lab,” Wilson said.

Private citizens can also contribute to mussel monitoring and data collection, through an online app called EDDMaps. If citizens spot any invasive species, they can report it through the website www.eddmaps.org/Alberta/ or mobile app. They can also report a negative. Some people will report when they pull their dock out of the water, others choose to hang a PVC pipe or brick off their dock and check more frequently. As often as they check, they can report their findings.

Alberta is also continuing its Clean, Drain, Dry promotions and enforcing the Pull the Plug law. Anyone who sees something suspicious in the water or on a boat is urged to call the hotline 1-855-336-BOAT (2628).

While the hope is to keep mussels out of the province’s waterways, contingency plans are being made.

“There is work going on so that someday if we get these things we’ll be able to cope with them better,” McMullin said. “Alberta Agriculture and Alberta Environment are working on getting potash registered to kill the mussels.”

It was an approach that was tried — unsuccessfully — in a Lake Winnipeg harbour in 2014. The method might work better in a pipeline system and the Eastern Irrigation District is working with Alberta Agriculture to figure out how to get the concentration of potash high enough to be lethal to mussels. But there are 4,000 kilometres of irrigation pipeline delivering water to farms, and an additional 4,000 kilometres of irrigation pipe on the farms themselves. These are ideal places for the mussels to attach and grow. Estimates put the cost of control, should mussels end up in Alberta, at $75 million per year.

McMullin is hoping that costly effort won’t ever be needed.

“We need to be cautious when moving any sporting equipment or fishing equipment or watercraft from lake to lake,” he said. “Everything needs to be cleaned and dry before it goes to another water body.”

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