By Hilary Corrigan
Triplicate staff writer
The quagga mussel a cousin to the zebra mussel that scientists estimate has caused billions of dollars in damage in the Great Lakes region by clogging pipes and taking food from fish has taken up residence in California.
Last month, Metropolitan Water District divers found the mussels in Lake Havasu at the California and Arizona border. The freshwater mussels were discovered earlier in January in nearby Lake Mead that straddles the Nevada and Arizona borders.
Scientists and state agency officials seek to make the mussel's move a temporary visit. If they don't, the adaptable, hardy creature could their way to waterways throughout the west including Del Norte County.
Quagga mussels originally come from Eastern Europe and likely made their way to America by the ballasts of cargo ships.
Boats and fishing gear, rather than natural hosts such as birds and wind, have likely spread them west of the Rocky Mountains.
"They're not migrating here. We're moving them," Jim Waldvogel, a marine advisor with the University of California Sea Grant Extension in Del Norte County, said of human influence.
The creatures can clog pipes of power plants, hydroelectric projects and pump systems. Lake Mead and Lake Havasu share the Colorado River that, along with the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, provides drinking and irrigation water to huge regions through the southwest.
The mussels also eat plankton, taking up the bottom of the food chain that salmon and other fish depend on.
"They can mat a whole floor of a lake or a canal," Waldvogel said.
They don't tend to take hold as well in fast-flowing waterways a possible boon for the Klamath and Smith rivers. But they could settle in the reservoirs of the Klamath River's upper basin.
"Up there, I could really see it being a cause for concern," said Sea Grant Extension marine advisor Pete Nelson.
Various state and federal agencies have formed a task force to consider options. Those could include using chemicals to kill the mussels, machines to scrape or suction them from hard surfaces, hot water to flush them out.
But the larvae could travel with water flow or by birds that feed on them, said Andy Cohen, a task force science advisor and a senior scientist with the San Francisco Estuary Institute. Hatchery fish shipments from the Colorado River could also carry larvae to other waterways.
Cohen noted the zebra mussel's move to New Orleans within three years of its discovery in the Great Lakes.
The task force seeks emergency funding from the state legislature to block such a spread. State officials have also set up checkpoints on southern California freeways to inspect watercraft and a toll free phone number to receive comments and questions.
The task force aims to isolate the mussels to the southern California sites and possible eradicate them.
"Hopefully, it's being contained," said John Mello, a marine biologist with the state department of fish and game in Eureka. "It could have devastating effects, there's no question."
Preventing mussel movement
Scientists had predicted it was only a matter of time before the mussels made their trek west, said Tina Swanson, a senior scientist with the Bay Institute, a nonprofit environmental research and advocacy organization.
If the mussels spread through California, they will prove nearly impossible to get rid of.
"It's probably almost inevitable," Swanson said.
They would send another blow to the delta's food chain. The Asian clam already has crowded out native aquatic life, taking up food and harming fish.
"The most important thing we can be doing is prevention," Swanson said.
Such steps include washing boats and equipment, waders and fishing gear.
"It's probably fairly preventable," Nelson agreed.
The related Zebra and Quagga mussels share similar species traits:
Live in freshwater
Each adult can filter a liter of water per day, eating plankton and algae
Reproduce by external fertilization, with eggs and sperm connecting in the water
Maybe partly responsible for creating dead zones areas without water in Lake Erie
Curved open side
Can live in shallow, warm water or deep, cold water
Native to the Dneiper River drainage of Ukraine, but present in U.S., including California
Dark stripes, pale near the shell hinge
Flat open side
Prefers shallow, warm water
Native to rivers and lakes of Eastern Europe and western Asia, but present in U.S.
Tan or brown with zig-zag stripes
Source: U.S. Geological Survey
A state task force has formed to block the spread of the quagga mussel, an invasive shellfish that threatens water systems. For information, visit www.dfg.ca.gov/ospr/ and link to the section on quagga mussels. For questions and comments, 866-440-9530.