OUT: Sunday Column May 31, 2009

Park managers balance boaters and protecting against pests

One more thing to add to your boating day: The pre-launch boat inspection at Rifle Gap and Harvey Gap reservoirs.

Starting Monday, boaters hauling a motorized craft to Rifle Gap and Harvey Gap are required to have their boats inspected for zebra and quagga mussels and other exotic aquatic nuisances prior to being launched.

Inspections will be done from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. every day at Rifle Gap and from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at Harvey Gap.

It’s all part of the statewide plan Colorado State Parks is mounting to stem to spread of these aquatic misfits into Colorado waters. These inspections, now conducted at 27 water-oriented state parks, are the only tools water manager have to fight what’s considered a serious threat.

It’s unclear how successful the inspections might be in the long term. Several years ago, when the National Park Service first initiated similar inspections and hot-water washing of suspect boats at Lake Powell, it was noted the steps probably wouldn’t stop the spread of zebra mussels but rather delay as long as possible the organisms’ appearance at the lake.

The inspections have been successful in that the lake still is considered free of zebra mussels.

These mandatory inspections currently are the best tool water managers have and as inspection programs get more widespread, they also get better accepted.

“Most of the people we contact are really compliant,” said Pete Firmin, park ranger at Rifle Gap State Park. “The vast majority are educating themselves about the (aquatic nuisance species) problem and how they can help.”

There still is a handful of unhappy boaters complaining about what they see as an unnecessary hassle, but the threats from zebra and quagga mussels are real. Not only can they plug water outlets and structures, they also can ruin the motor on your boat.

So seriously are water managers taking the ANS threat that recreational boating in some waters may be affected if mussels get established.

Water districts across Colorado have millions of dollars invested in pipes, outlets, headgates and the paraphernalia that goes with getting water as cheaply as possible from Point A to Point B. Those districts aren’t willing to be put out of business by a dime-sized invader.

Much of the water stored in Colorado state parks is owned by those private water districts.

“We’re trying to balance the needs of recreation with the needs of water managers,” Firmin said. “The dangers of being a contaminated reservoir are some pretty negative impacts and water managers are asking us to everything we can short of shutting down recreational boating.

“If we do ever test positive, (boaters’) lives will become even more complicated.”

An example of the possible complications is at Blue Mesa Reservoir, where all undeveloped launch sites now are closed.

Boaters are asked to launch only at Elk Creek, Lake Fork and Stevens Creek marinas, where boat inspections are available daily from 5:30 a.m. until 9 p.m.

“If they want to launch before or after those hours they just can’t,” said Sandra Snell-Dobert, spokesperson for Curecanti National Recreation Area. “It’s difficult, we know, but we’re trying to stretch the hours with the staffing level available to us. So far it seems to be working pretty well.”

Rifle Gap and Harvey Gap is making an effort to accommodate early launches by offering a pre-launch inspection the day before. Boaters will get a sealed sticker showing their boat has been inspected and this sticker is good for one launch. It’s not a season pass and you can expect to have your boat examined the next time you show up.

It’s going to be particularly tough to avoid inspections at Blue Mesa, which recently was listed as “suspect” for zebra mussels.

This, said Snell-Dobert, means the Division of Wildlife detected some DNA from zebra mussels in the water without actually finding mussels.

“It might have washed from someplace upstream or came off a boat,” said Snell-Dobert. “Subsequent tests showed nothing so we really don’t know for sure.”


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